The Politics of Starving: An Interview with Raj Patel

Raj Patel is a writer, activist and academic. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System(2008)and The Value of Nothing(2009), co-author with Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck of Food Rebellions!(2010), and co-editor, with Peter Rossett and Michael Courville, of Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform(2006). He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the USHouse Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He is currently a visiting scholar at UCBerkeley’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. Chandra Kumar interviewed him in February 2010.

In Stuffed and Starved you write about the international system of food production and distribution. You argue that this system results in starvation and obesity. Can you elaborate?

These problems are an inevitable outcome of the way capitalism controls and distributes food. When you distribute food through a capitalist market, you’re guaranteed two outcomes: people who have money get to eat, and people who don’t have money don’t get to eat. The original imperial idea behind the creation of world food markets was that they would allow people around the world to eat. But under this model people who don’t have money go hungry, and it’s no accident that these people live in the countries where food is grown.

In Stuffed and Starved, I look at the concentration of power within capitalism and the food system, and show that corporations control a great deal of what is alleged to be the free market in food. On one end of the food system, this control allows them to underpay people who produce the food. The worst paid people on earth are farm labourers, closely followed by small farmers. That’s why in the Global South people who are undernourished and living on fewer than 1900 calories per day tend to be farm workers. On the other end of the food system, corporations have an incentive to produce food that is profitable – that is, high in fat and salt and sugar and all the things we crave. These foods are principle sources of the obesity epidemic. But the epidemic doesn’t affect everyone equally. In the Global North, overweight people tend to be food insecure. This points to a more general rule. Poverty, whether in rich countries or poor countries, means you are less able to control your diet. For the very poor, this means starvation. For the urban poor – in the Global North and increasingly in the Global South – this means food that contributes to obesity and diabetes.

You claim capitalism is central in creating and reinforcing these problems, but you distinguish between capitalism and markets. Why are you in favour of markets?

Markets are terrific. Markets are as old as human civilization – the idea is simply that people from different groups get together and exchange stuff. They’re a venue for interaction, for building trust, and for reciprocity. Exchange is vital if you’re going to live in a world that moves beyond village autarky (and there’s nothing precious about village autarky).

But markets today are typically held to be synonymous with capitalism. In the confusing conflation of markets and capitalism, many people blame markets. However, the problem is not the phenomenon of exchange, but the way in which goods are produced for the market. Most people like the idea of free exchange of goods and services, de-centralization, and of not being told what to do. But this reasonable appreciation of markets becomes a forced love of capitalism because we are denied the tools to think of other ways of producing goods for exchange. There are, however, other ways of organizing production while retaining the decentralization and absence of coercion that make markets liberating.

So you think markets can be combined with something like workers’ control?

They already are. This isn’t just some leftist pipe-dream. We already see that the largest industrial cooperatives, such as the wholly worker-run city of Mondragón, Spain for example, are nonetheless capable of operating in markets. Without wanting to oversell workers’ control as a panacea – it is possible for there to be coercion within and between workers’ organizations, after all – the Mondragón cooperatives at the very least demonstrate the possibility of large-scale worker-owned organizations. There are, of course, other civilizations in which markets prevail and capitalism does not, which remind us that markets and capitalism have been historically separate, and will be again.

What would food sovereignty look like? How do you relate progress in this sphere to broader issues of social transformation?

Food sovereignty is an idea that comes from the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. In 1995 at the World Food Summit in Rome, they tried to articulate a vision different from the neoliberal conception of food and food politics. Central to La Via Campesina’s vision was the idea that we need more than food security. Historically, the definition of food security specifies that there should be enough healthy food available and that everyone should have sufficient access to it so that they can lead a healthy life. The trouble is that this concept hinges on “access.” You can, after all, be “food secure” in prison where, if you’re lucky, you can get nutritious food three times a day, and not starve. Therefore, food security can look like someone shoving food down your throat.

“Food sovereignty,” by contrast, is the idea that people have control over their food system. Basically, it’s a demand for democracy in the food system. And that demand is intricately linked with a range of other struggles and questions.

Although “democracy in the food system” sounds vague, it rests on a series of non-negotiable foundations. Among the most important is the demand for women’s rights. At the 2008 Via Campesina summit in Maputo, Mozambique, one popular slogan asserted that food sovereignty is about “an end to all forms of violence against women.” In other words, in order to have vibrant food democracy, gender-based injustices and inequalities need to be challenged from the World Trade Organization and World Bank down to dynamics in the household. This is what makes La Via Campesina’s call for food sovereignty a twenty-first century idea. They’re not demanding a return to some sort of bucolic peasant past, but are instead insisting on a politics that we have yet to see.

At the heart of food sovereignty is the idea that ecological and political constituencies should intersect, and that democracy entails many overlapping sovereignties. Designating a state or a single body to decide things is a recipe for disaster. We need overlapping sovereignties and jurisdictions in order to have a politics that’s workable, vibrant, and democratic. In perforating the boundaries between jurisdictions – sometimes calling on local forces to shape food sovereignty, sometimes on national or supra-national forces – food sovereignty is an invitation to re-imagine the very notion of political constituency along overlapping ecological lines.

Given the interconnections between the food system and other systems (such as patriarchy, ecological destruction, and imperialism), is it possible to seriously confront any one of them without simultaneously confronting the others? How could these various struggles be tied together without something like a revolutionary party – though not necessarily a Leninist “vanguard” party?

My inner anarchist is very suspicious of the idea of a revolutionary party because within them power is typically concentrated in the hands of a few people. I’m suspicious of the idea of a professional revolutionary. The interesting kinds of social change that I’ve seen (and which I write about in Stuffed and Starved), are driven by very unprofessional revolutionaries, and are decentralized and autonomous in ways that aren’t really captured by classical ideas of the party – vanguardist or otherwise. I’m very open to the idea that there are other forms of the party that might work, and I’m keen to learn more about those.

We do need to tackle several things simultaneously. But is the party the best vehicle to be able to do that? The Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) – a movement of landless rural workers that relies on the concept of multiple fronts – is one of the most interesting initiatives addressing the food system. It’s not a party. It’s a movement in which cells of 100 families get together and figure out not only how to reclaim land but how to manage their affairs collectively: how to arrange their education, how to demand health care from the government, how to do many things simultaneously. There is a division of labour, and there are militants who help to organize the movement. But those militants are part of the communities in which they work, and the communities are firmly in the driver’s seat. Good organizing skills and organizing culture are central to the kind of social change we need to see. Organizers have a key role, and I don’t think ‘spontaneous’ organizing ever happens. Anyone who has been involved in social movements knows that a ‘spontaneous’ protest takes forever to organize. That said, I’m not convinced that a single revolutionary party is the way forward. It’s an approach of which the MST are wary, and I think their suspicions – founded on many more years of experience than mine – are worth taking seriously.

You point to many examples of farmers’ movements and other kinds of resistance and forms of food production that come from the global South. Where in the South are the most significant movements occurring?

The MST makes Brazil a very exciting place to look for lessons about social change. They’ve been tremendously important in mobilizing over a million people to reclaim land and to redefine the most sacred institution of capitalism, that of private property; they’ve also moved beyond the twentieth-century vision of industrial agriculture that was common to both capitalism and state socialism. They are researching, investigating, and teaching visions of sustainable agriculture that involve polyculture and agroecology on increasingly large scales. Those kinds of technological innovations (as well as social innovations) are important if we are to recognize that there’s no magic bullet for social transformation. A mere technological fix is insufficient; you also need profound social change.

Cuba is also very interesting, not because of the socialist government per se, but because of the relationship between farmers and the government. The people have forced the government to take them seriously. That has to do with legacies of organizing and with autonomous demands from people that go beyond what the government claimed it could provide. In the so-called “Special Period” – the period of economic crisis in Cuba from the early to mid-’90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union – farmers’ groups demanded changes in land management and the land reform regime and an end to collectives. This might have looked like a return to capitalism but it wasn’t. The land markets in Cuba are not capitalist markets; property management strategies simultaneously account for the importance of the family unit and the importance of organizing beyond the family unit. These solutions are worth looking at, and learning from.

These South American examples are the most notable, but there are others, such as the Deccan Development Society in India or farmers’ organizations in Malawi that are doing great research and work on sustainability.

You worked for a short time at the World Bank, until you quit. Describe that experience. What is the World Bank’s role in food politics?

I was a graduate student at Cornell and one of the economics professors took me on as a research assistant. He recommended I work on a project at the World Bank reviewing their classified documents to see how they talk about poverty. I jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the project ultimately amounted to writing a puff piece about how the poor love the World Bank.

Within the World Bank there is a culture of self-justification and an inability to comprehend that poor people might think for themselves and might have their own politics. It is an “anti-politics machine,” as James Ferguson suggests in his book The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Joining the World Bank’s mission makes you feel self-righteous about believing in the bright shining future you are a part of. And it prevents people from thinking about political alternatives. I resigned when the full weight of my research project became clear.

I’ve written about the World Bank ever since. Sometimes I apologize for having worked there, but – and I don’t know if this makes it better or worse – I did learn what it’s like. The World Bank is a bureaucracy filled with people doing bad things, with “good intentions.”

In contrast to your World Bank experience, through your involvement with the South African movement known as AbM you’ve gleaned a new kind of politics. Why do you think this movement is important, and what can activists in countries such as Canada and the United States learn from it?

The history of South Africa isn’t a happily-ever-after story of social struggle. Unfortunately, when the story gets told here, it seems like an activist fairytale. As if Nelson Mandela coming out of prison was like the end of The Lion King, with everyone singing in close harmony, the sun setting, and the circle of life beginning again. In fact, for many in South Africa, apartheid is still alive and well – in modulated form of course, and no one wishes back the days of white rule. In terms of inequality and human development indicators, though, South Africa has fallen from its apartheid levels to somewhere below Palestine.

AbMis a movement of people who live in shacks. The organization began in Durban and has since spread to the rest of the country. They’re struggling not just for state recognition, but for economic and planning redistribution. AbM’s politics arise partly from experience with, and memories of, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the struggles against apartheid. Also central is the idea that struggle is its own school – the idea behind the “University of AbM.” It’s not only that poverty and struggle provide an education. This idea flags and dignifies the kinds of learning that poor people have, which are systematically denigrated by universities and trumped by bourgeois knowledge that has no space – or a very attenuated space – for poor people. In bourgeois universities poor people are told to shut up and learn what the bourgeois know. The University of AbMis an important reminder that there is thinking going on in the shacks and in the streets, through meetings and through autonomous organizing.

The result has been the largest autonomous movement in South Africa working with basically no resources. When AbMmembers have been invited to different parts of the world they’ve discovered that there’s already a lot going on in places like Canada and the US, that resonates with what they are doing. Last year some AbMcomrades went to New York, where the “University of the Poor” strongly resembles AbM’s work and involves similar kinds of activism, and of engagement and the dignifying of poor people’s knowledge. These developments counter patronizing views of how workers or middle class leaders in the North or the South should respond to the demands of poor people. AbMand the University of AbMdemonstrate that poor people think and lead for themselves and that they’re willing to school comrades who are ready to come and struggle alongside them. The slogan “Talk with us, not about us,” which they generated in struggle, is crucial.

How has AbM responded to state repression in South Africa?

It’s an open secret that the African National Congress (ANC) has a standing order to smash AbMin the Durban settlements where the movement started. There was a targeted campaign in which armed men destroyed the houses of movement leaders and people died. Some of the leaders whose houses had been destroyed found refuge in safe-houses organized by Amnesty International. When I visited them several months ago, I was full of anger and a desire for vengeance, but they were calm. They continue to meet. They explain that what’s important is that people who are still in the settlements are realizing that, although the ANCchased out the AbMon the grounds that they were stopping development, the ANCactually has done nothing since the ABMwas driven out. No one is managing the HIV-AIDSdrop-in centre, no one is cleaning the land outside the community centres so now it’s an open toilet, no one is looking after the children – there used to be a crèche (or daycare centre) and now it’s all been smashed. So this is an educational moment; this is also part of the school.

The movement now has new offices. The leadership is in hiding but they’re looking to return, and in the meantime the movement actually continues to meet and strategize. That was especially important in 2010 because the World Cup was in South Africa and AbMwanted to get their message out and connect with other movements around the world.

At a recent talk in Toronto, you said Marx was not an egalitarian. What, then, do you make of Engels’ well-known comment that “for us, equality means the abolition of class”? He said this in the context of criticising people on the left who talked about “equality” and “rights” in too much of a moralistic tone, without an understanding of class divisions, class conflict, and class struggle.

The easy question is “was Marx an egalitarian?” In academic debates, no one ever says: “Here’s a line where Marx talks about egalitarianism in the way that Rousseau (for example) talks about it.” In fact, if you follow the loopier elements of the debate, “Rousseau” becomes a term of slander because that kind of egalitarianism is not what Marx is talking about. Of course, it is tremendously important to look at class and to look at the way capitalism depends on the fundamental antagonism between the owner of the means of production and the worker. That is, of course, a very central way in which inequality flourishes under capitalism – but it’s not the only way.

It’s important to see how history is indeed a history of class struggle, but when it comes to questions about how a more egalitarian society can happen, anarchist critiques of Marxism are important. How can transformation happen? I’m interested in anarchist politics precisely because they’re so practical. Challenging other kinds of inequality (other than class) is central to the idea of revolutionary transformation, and should be regarded as an essential part of any class-based politics. This is one thing that attracts me to La Via Campesina, where you can see a range of ideologies flourishing under one umbrella. Some of these ideologies are reactionary, having to do with middle peasants keeping their land, and some of these ideologies are inspired by Marx but move beyond Marx. Marx had a very 20th century (or 19th century) vision of agriculture, society, and the role of mechanization. In the 21st century, we need to rethink those ideas in light of what we now know about ecology and the limits of science under capitalism and industrialization.

So, I suppose, the answer I want to give is equivocal. On the one hand, Marx is substantially correct about issues of class and class struggle under capitalism. But I don’t think this correctness is exhaustive. We have learned things since Marx’s time with which to update our ideologies – including the experience of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and state socialism. Some anarchist thinking around equality, particularly the work of Jacques Rancière, is worth looking at. I’m reading as much as I can and trying to make my mind up about these questions, which is something we all need to try to do.

As you know, the debate between anarchism and Marxism goes back at least to Bakunin and Marx. One of the key differences between them – perhaps the key difference –was on the seizing of state power in a socialist revolution. Do you think Bakunin was right to believe that socialist democracy could be realized, and be sustained, without any seizure of state power?

No, I don’t. In fact, in that skirmish, Bakunin was clearly out-gunned. At the same time, the state today is not the same thing Marx was looking at. I think it’s a much more porous and much more dangerous institution. It very much remains “the executive committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie,” but in terms of seizing state power, it’s very important to figure out ways to do that without getting killed.

To abjure the possibility of seizing state power doesn’t seem a good strategy. I’m not convinced by John Holloway’s writings in Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today and Crack Capitalism,for example. But that’s why movements like the MST are very interesting. The MST has both an ‘entry’ strategy for the state and an oppositional strategy against the state. This movement can somehow have its cake and eat it too; they are constantly fighting against the state for demands and concessions, simultaneously trying to insert themselves into the state and transform it, and also, ultimately, trying to become the state. Again, recall that food sovereignty is an agenda that tries to render more porous and impermanent the set of Westphalian institutions that we have been taught to treat as timeless. There are a range of eminently practical strategies and tactics that make things work. Dialectical relations with the state that result in complex and vibrant politics are typically much more practical, and not based on debates about whether we should take state power. And the results are clearly evident in the MST’s successes in Brazil. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the MST, and the practical politics of where movements find themselves and the lessons they’ve learned through these ‘universities of struggle.’ These lessons ought to augment the theoretical debates that we’ve been reading about for the past couple hundred years.