Food is a powerful frame for progressive politics. This is because so much contemporary injustice appears connected with issues relating to food: its production, its circulation and its availability. Globally, different forms of food deprivation shape the everyday lives of the poor.1
In addition, globalized food production is often the site for high levels of labour exploitation and abuse, such as in the use of forced labour in industrialized fishing;2 or the use of low wage labour in harvesting, processing, and the persistent exploitation of food retail workers.3 Food and food production produce massive environmental effects, in particular the contributions of industrialized food production and distribution to global warming. Food has also become a powerful focus for “ethical consumers,” particularly those with high levels of disposable income, who have increasingly engaged in forms of food choice in order to exercise influence over supply chains and sustainability. Accordingly, there has been a growing interest from activists, policy makers and academics in the politics of food systems, and the opportunities offered by food movements in achieving social justice goals. And we have seen a diversity of food justice responses along these lines: ranging from radical food sovereignty movements such as La Vía Campesina which challenge the ongoing capitalist restructuring of food systems and their implications for peasant rights;4 to global technocratic projects aimed at achieving “food security” targets, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.5
With this context in mind, I offer this review of Eric Holt-Giménez’s book A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. The book is pragmatically oriented towards activists who want to make change: offering an easy-to-read, yet comprehensive, theoretical and empirical background for readers seeking to understand food production and supply chains. Perhaps this reflects the deep connection of the author to food movements: Holt-Giménez is currently the Executive Director of Food First, a not for profit movement organization working towards transformation orientated around food systems.6
A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism begins with a strong appeal to readers to explore the structural dimensions of food, within the broad problematic of the “capitalist food system” (13). Holt-Giménez explores the profound shaping effect of capitalism on food systems, impacting the shape of production, consumption and distribution. While the capitalist food system generates deep inequalities; the book points out that change is politically difficult and will require education, alliance building and persistence. Here, Holt-Giménez offers a frank and useful diagnosis of the inadequacy of left movements, at least in the Global North, in understanding and responding to the capitalist markets: “Critical knowledge of capitalism – vital to the struggles of social movements through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – largely disappeared from the lexicon of social change, precisely at a time when neoliberal capitalism was destroying the working class and relentlessly penetrating every aspect of nature and society on the planet” (16).
In this respect, Holt-Giménez’s book aims to help movements build from the ground up. The book seeks to educate the reader on how to understand capitalism and its effects, and assumes an audience who is not necessarily versed in decades of left theory. And the book certainly succeeds in this respect: Holt-Giménez has provided here a remarkably accessible text that introduces readers to core terms and concepts in Marxist and left theory, while also offering historical and empirical tools that allow for an understanding of food systems today. Chapter One provides a history of the development of capitalist agriculture and exchange systems related to food, taking note of industrialization, and the connections between colonialism, racial slavery and war. Chapter Two encourages readers to think about food as a commodity, “valued not just as sustenance but as potential capital” (60). In both these chapters there are extraordinarily clear explanations of Karl Marx’s theories: giving readers an understanding of capital as a relation (35-6) and a working knowledge of Marx’s value theory (value, surplus value and necessary labour time) and its application to food systems (60-81).
Chapter Three moves to thinking about property, the history of property relations and their connection to the aspirations of food sovereignty movements. Holt-Giménez strongly calls for a restructuring of property, noting that private property relations restrict those with interests in property to influencing decisions, whereas public and common property create the basis for democratic decision making and control. In this chapter, Holt-Giménez turns to Karl Polanyi, among other thinkers, to note the progressive erasure of public institutions and the Commons by unregulated market forces: “The tragedy is not of the Commons but of the commodification of nature and the unregulated, private exploitation of its resources” (92).
Holt-Giménez moves on to explore the evolution of capitalist agriculture and the rise of industrial farms in Chapter Four. Here we find a useful summary of the economic forces driving the intensification of agriculture, and the way in which this is a symptom of food production which has become a target of capital. We also find an outline of green political economy approaches to thinking about the relation between nature and capitalism, in particular Marx’s conception of the “metabolic rift,” the processes by which capitalism, industrialization and urbanization create one way flows of nutrients which deplete soil fertility as part of industrialized agriculture (129-134).7 In this context Holt-Giménez supports smaller scale alternatives to industrial farming, explaining “agroecology” approaches to farm sustainability, and espousing a “moral economy” that prioritizes “socially regulated relations of reciprocity over commodity (market) relations, such as value-based cooperatives, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture associations (CSAs), ‘Food Commons,’ in which food is not treated as a commodity but as a common good” (139).
The relationships between class, gender and race are unpacked in Chapter Five. Here Holt-Giménez highlights the devaluation of women’s labour that is structured by patriarchal relations. The book also discusses the different faces of racism that relate to food systems: racial slavery and the contemporary racialized workforce of food production; as well as the links between diet, health and race. In this intersectional context, Holt-Giménez points to the sort of alliances that are required to transform the capitalist food system: “Food embraces the concerns of class, but also those of gender and race. This means that food provides an opportunity to build alliances on the basis of interests ‘wider than our own’” (170).
The closing two chapters of the book situate the current crises around food and climate change and explore opportunities for radical transformation. Holt-Giménez here rejects proposals for “sustainable intensification” – that is intensive forms of agriculture that minimize environmental impact – noting that these fail to address the distributional problems inherent to capitalism (182-3). Instead the solution advocated by Holt-Giménez is for “small-scale agroecological farms that are already producing high yields using practices that work in concert with the environment and redistribute wealth within the food system” (183).
So how do we get there? Holt-Giménez is clear: “we need a movement that is able to forge a militantly democratic food system in favour of the poor and oppressed globally and locally, and that effectively rolls back the elite, neoliberal food regime” (232). There is a frank appraisal here though of the difficulty of this task. We are reminded that there has been a radical depoliticization of the public sphere, and with it the decimation of political movements in favour of non-government organizations which are often constrained to work within the parameters set by the State and the market. Holt-Giménez argues that tactical alliance is the key; that is, finding movement objectives that can bring together diverse social movements for a common cause:
Strategic alliances are those in which people and organizations agree to a position or actions that share a basic political platform. For example, La Via Campesina (LVC) and the World March of Women (WMW) established a strategic alliance when WMW assumed food sovereignty as a plank in the platform for women’s liberation, and LVC committed to an end to all violence against women as a necessary condition for food sovereignty. The convergence of two of the most powerful social movements in the world has far-reaching political ramifications, particularly for women, who grow most of the world’s food (234).
Alliance building here is understood as a key strategy towards reconstruction a political public sphere. And certainly, I think Holt-Giménez is correct that this is the only realistic strategy available to the left – namely to form strategic alliances that focus on shared objectives in order to affect the sorts of structural changes required to produce the world we want to live in.
However, it is here that I would like to ponder: how exactly do pro animal movements fit in to this picture? Is it possible to imagine food movements forging alliances with animal liberationists? And under what terms would it be possible? I raise these questions because animal liberation appears somewhat isolated from the politics of many food movements. It is true that at least some food movements aspire to improved animal welfare – that is seeking to reduce unnecessary suffering associated with the use of animals for food – by advocating for smaller scale production which is often argued would enable more “humane” animal treatment. But a more radical politics connected to ending human utilization of non-human animals does not appear compatible with the goals of many food movements; since even radical visions of food sovereignty assume that animals will remain in place as commodities and sources of value.
A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism reinforces my concerns about this disconnect between the politics of food movements and the politics of animal liberation. Holt-Giménez is certainly aware of the ethical concerns that relate to human utilization of animals, particularly in the context of industrial animal agriculture. Holt-Giménez raises very clear concerns around the effects of industrialization for animal welfare (see particularly 80-81). For example, we are reminded in the book of the “biological speed up” associated with intensification of meat production: “cows produce more milk than ever before, but live much shorter lives, burning out in just a few years. Poultry farms can now grow chickens from chicks to broilers in eight weeks” (79).8 However, this concern in relation to the effects of industrial animal agriculture does not necessarily transfer to a concern about the violence associated with the utilization of animals or their status as property. There is no radical project described here associated with reducing and eliminating violence against animals and no project troubling the assumed property status of animals.
Indeed, there is a curious politics at play within the book when it concerns animals and their property status. Gary Francione reminded us many years ago that the property status of animals generates “false conflicts” which are essentially not about freeing animals from this property status, but contesting how animals as property are to be used.9 In some respects we see Francione’s theory played out here. Food sovereignty movements aim to secure property rights and controls over food production as a liberation project for humans. However, animals always remain property, almost as if it is unimaginable for this situation to be otherwise. And thus, the best that animals can hope for is a kinder, more “humane”, property relation. We see an example of this is Holt-Giménez’s discussion of the impact of industrialized fishing on fish populations, and the flow-on impact this has had for small scale artisanal and subsistence fishing. Here we are told that: “the real problem in the decline of fisheries isn’t overfishing by large numbers of fisherman but rather the huge industrial trawlers in search of global profits that overfish with nets that damage the seafloor” (91). This is in a sense an example of Francione’s “false conflict” at play: the ongoing decimation of fish populations which have impacted local fishing certainly represents a conflict, but this is a conflict over property interests in animals. The interests of fish themselves – in their own life, their own well being and flourishing – do not appear strongly prioritized10 Whether we include animals and their status as a political concern for the left has immense consequences for the sort of world we are working towards. As Holt-Giménez emphasizes, property rights generate interests, and progressive politics should aim to minimize the negative effects of private property interests through democratic processes. Do these same processes of democratization not also apply to animals? If we can only imagine animals as property, can we realistically imagine worlds that move beyond our own anthropocentricism and reduce the intense violence we expose animals to? Shouldn’t a food politics aim to build connections on the basis of interests ‘wider than our own’?
However, I would like to pose the problem in a different way, and this relates to a conceptual gap within left political economy and how it understands capitalism and production: namely related to the status of animals as labourers. Labour is an important category within left thought because of the central role of labour in generating value and the primacy given to the agency of labour in resisting capitalism. It is well known that Marx was antagonistic to the idea that animals laboured in the way that humans do: Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts very clearly articulate a supposed fundamental difference between how humans and animals labour, attributing a capacity for conscious creative work only to humans.11 Arguably much left theory has maintained this anthropocentric assumption that assumes that human labour makes the world. Indeed, Holt-Giménez appears to repeat this assumption:
All commodities, including food, are the products of human labour. Even honey, made by the planet’s beleaguered bees, needs to be collected and processed by human labour. Wild mushrooms still need to be gathered; salt needs to be mined or produced in evaporating ponds; and wild fish must be caught. Even the new, fully automated parlours for milking cows need human labour to make and maintain the milking machines and care for animals. One way or another, human labour – physical and mental – is common to all commodities and directly or indirectly embeds the value of labour into everything we buy and sell (61).
Of course, human labour forms a component of value generated within all production processes in human societies. However, the above paragraph illustrates than non-human labour has an essential role: cows obviously have to produce milk, generating value within the production chain in order for the production process to succeed. Only the most self-centered anthropocentricism would imagine that only human labour produces this value. And there are now a growing chorus of scholars who have pointed out that actually animal do labour and this is an important part of the production process that has been devalued.12 There is also recent green theory which has emphasized that all production is inevitably a combination of human and non-human natures, paid and unpaid labour.13
The idea that animals create value has immense implications for how we read Marx’s value theory, something myself and others have attempted to explore.14 At least one implication is that the workforce of capitalism is not only human, and that development of industrial capitalism has equally been a process of subordinating human and animal labour. In this, we must understand capitalism as a process that seeks to dominate all life, and as such the labour of all beings. Indeed, non-human animals are perhaps the largest workforce of capitalism, and they face some of the most grueling conditions: intensive controls over diet, movement and reproduction, and mass violence that includes systematic forms of suffering and large-scale death. Confronting capitalism means simultaneously working to build the worlds we would prefer to live in; worlds that do not rest on continued and deep forms of exploitation, violence and domination, and promote universal flourishing. In this context, it would be problematic if alliances to end capitalism are premised on the continued exploitation of animals.
I am not sure whether it is reasonable to direct the above concerns at Holt-Giménez in the form of critique. After all, the book reflects a theoretical position of food sovereignty movements, embodying the material alliances that have been formed with a variety of social forces. But the book is symptomatic of the current status of animal liberation within left politics. To an extent then, the failure of A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism to critically problematize the continuing role of animals – as food and labour – under capitalism is a product of the isolation of pro animal movements from both food sovereignty movements and left struggles more broadly. The solution has to be for animal liberationists to engage more with food sovereignty movements and work on alliance building – by all means, a long-term project. Holt-Giménez proposes a vision for the renewal of the left in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. This will require tactical alliances with a range of different movements. This vision needs to extend to dialogue, negotiation and alliance building with pro animal movements.
This does leave a set of challenges for animal liberationists. Under what conditions would such a tactical alliance between animal advocates and food movements be possible? Clearly the prospect of an alliance politics between radical food sovereignty movements and pro animal movements face a number of tangible barriers. Naturally, such an alliance will need to be cognizant of the very real and continuing economic role of animals for the livelihoods of small hold farmers globally, both as producers of value but also as property assets. Animals remain a subsistence food for many people globally, and there are long cultural traditions associated with the use of animals as food. Certainly, we must recognize that least some animal liberationists have continued colonial and imperialistic projects in the way they have advocated for change: for example animal liberationists who oppose indigenous hunting as a cultural practice without taking into account histories of dispossession and sovereignty; or white vegans telling non white people what they should eat, without considering the long connection between colonialism, globalization and the hegemonic reconstruction of global diets that has resulted. We must also frankly acknowledge that at least some vegan movements have been complicit in a consumption based politics which has ignored global conditions of production and helped build and consolidate the capitalist food system. Naturally, any sort of alliance politics between food sovereignty movements and pro animal movements needs to navigate this terrain and identify shared projects and goals. Animal advocates will need to adjust their strategies and may need to make compromises in order to build meaningful alliances. However alliance building requires all partners to agree on a shared goal. Do animal liberation movements and food sovereignty movements share any aspirations for the society we want to build? Is an alliance possible?
- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that around 821 million people faced chronic food deprivation in 2017. See: http://www.fao.org/state-of-food-security-nutrition/en/. There has been substantial work towards improved understanding of the relation between low income status and access to food, including in the Global North; for example the demographic techniques used to map “food deserts”. See: https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2011/december/data-feature-mapping-food-deserts-in-the-us/.
- See for example the work done by the Environment Justice Foundation tracking the use of forced labour in the Thai fishing industry: https://web.ejfoundation.org/reports/thailands-seafood-slaves.
- The use of low wage and forced labour appears central to many production systems globally, such as the use of exploited migrant labour in fruit picking on Australian farms: see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/30/australian-slavery-inquiry-told-fruit-pickers-brainwashed-and-trapped-in-debt.
- See: https://viacampesina.org/en/
- See particularly Goal Two: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/.
- To read more about the work of Food First, see: https://foodfirst.org/.
- See John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature”, Monthly Review, 1 Dec 2013. At: https://monthlyreview.org/2013/12/01/marx-rift-universal-metabolism-nature/.
- Also see Raj Patel. “A Chicken Nugget Theory of Capitalism” The Nation. 7 November 2017. At: https://www.thenation.com/article/a-chicken-nugget-theory-of-capitalism/.
- Gary L. Francione. Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, p 63
- In making this observation, and as I shall discuss, I am aware of the deep social, cultural and economic issues that circulate the use of animal globally for food, including the importance of animal based food for local communities and its prioritization within particular cultural contexts. However it is curious that the perspectives of fish themselves do not seem to matter in debates over the capture of fish as “common” property.
- See Karl Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. At: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm
- See for example Corinne Painter, 2016. “Non-human Animals within Contemporary Capitalism: A Marxist Account of Non-human Animal Liberation.” Capital and Class 40, no. 2: 1–19; Jason Hribal, 2003. “‘Animals are Part of the Working Class’: A Challenge to Labor History.” Labor History. 44(4): 435–453; Barbara Noske, 1997. Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals. Montreal: Black Rose Books; Ted Benton, 1993. Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights and Social Justice. London: Verso; Les Beldo, 2017. “Metabolic Labor: Broiler Chickens and the Exploitation of Vitality.” Environmental Humanities 9, no. 1: 108–28; Kendra Coulter, 2016. Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; and Alasdair Cochrane, 2016. “Labour Rights for Animals.” in Robert Garner and Siobhan O’Sullivan (eds), The Political Turn in Animal Ethics. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016. 15-32.
- See for example Jason W. Moore 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.
- See Dinesh Wadiwel, “On the Labour of Animals.” Progress in Political Economy. 28 August 2018. At: http://ppesydney.net/on-the-labour-of-animals/. See also Brian Whitener, “Animal Accumulation,” Blindfield: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry. 4 August 2018.