A New Democratic Enlightenment?
For once upon a time the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria was among the most powerful, dynamic and forward-thinking party machines of the modern world. The theme of our European Forum Alpbach symposium on politics is the New Enlightenment so here’s my opening conjecture: the language and ideal of social democracy has its roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. My research on Thomas Paine and the eighteenth century tried to complicate matters by making the point that the Enlightenment also included champions of civil rights, social justice and democratic representation, rebels and radicals who were sharply aware of the miseries suffered by people ground down by modern institutions not of their own choosing. The social democratic critique of free market capitalism proved compelling for millions of people. There is no time for me to recall the great moments of high drama, conceptual strife and contradictions, dark sides and luscious ironies that form part of a recorded history that includes courageous struggles of the downtrodden to form co-operatives, friendly societies, free trade unions, and to spread literacy and win the struggle for the universal franchise through social democratic parties. Membership of social democratic parties has dipped dramatically. Social democratic parties were among the slowest to react to the upheavals effected by the digital, globally networked communications revolution that began during the 1960s. Social democratic parties have shown limited awareness of the emergence, since the 1940s, of monitory democracy. Operating within the boundaries of territorial states, social democratic parties and governments have consequently been weakened and victimised by what Albert Einstein dubbed ‘spooky action at a distance’: cross-border butterfly effects, arbitrage pressures and quantum tunnels, all of which have greatly complicated the politics of wealth and income redistribution;. The rise of the People’s Republic of China as an economic great power on the global power stage has had two ironic effects: it has weakened an important part of the social support base of social democracy and established a viable ‘socialist’ alternative to capitalism in social democratic form: one party state capitalism legitimated by locally-made forms of democratic rule; and. For more than half a generation, beginning with works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring , green thinkers, scientists, journalists, politicians and social movement activists have been pointing out that the whole social democratic tradition is implicated deeply in the spoliation of our planet. Hence they call for a new politics with green qualities, a new democratic enlightenment that poses a fundamental challenge to both the style and substance of the old social democracy, or what remains of it. Especially striking is the new enlightenment’s call for the ‘de-commodification’ of the biosphere, in effect, the replacement of social democracy’s will to dominate nature and its innocent attachment to History with a more prudent sense of ‘deep time’ aware of the fragile complexity of the biosphere and its multiple rhythms. The new democratic enlightenment is opposed to the old social democratic metaphysics of economic progress, and the machismo of its favoured imagery of warrior male bodies gathered at the gates of pits, docks and factories, singing hymns to industrial growth, under smoke-stained skies. These social democrats aim to retrieve its most fruitful old ‘wish image’ to deal politically with the new problems of our time.
capitalism – An Outside Chance
While A Foodie’s Guide is lacking in recipes or menu ideas, it shines in helping us to understand the struggles of the men and women who work in the farms and packing plants. It explains why major capitalists have typically shown little interest in direct involvement in agriculture – preferring to make their money selling farm inputs, trading farm commodities, or turning farm products into the thousands of refined products that fill supermarket shelves. “Markets have been around a long time,” he writes, “But before the nineteenth century did not organize society as they do today.” He shows how capitalism in England arose concurrently with vigorous state intervention which drove people off their small farms and into the industrial labour pool. Even today, people go to great lengths to avoid having their lands swallowed up by capitalist agriculture – especially since this transition typically results in widespread consolidation of farms, leaving most former farmers to try to earn a living as landless labourers. Holt-Giménez offers a good primer in Marxist theory here, showing why it has always been difficult for capitalists to extract surplus value directly from the labour of farmers. In industrialized countries, the farm workers who pick fruit and vegetables or work in packing plants tend to be immigrants on temporary work permits. In the US a large majority of farms, including massive farms which raise monoculture crops using huge machinery, are run by individual families rather than corporations. An important recent development in this regard is contract farming, which Holt-Giménez refers to as “a modern version of sharecropping and tenant farming”. “Through a market-specification contract, the firm guarantees the producer a buyer, based on agreements regarding price and quality, and with a resource-providing contract the firm also provides production inputs. If the firm provides all the inputs and buys all of the product, it essentially controls the production process while the farmer basically provides land and labor.” Meanwhile farmers with purchase contracts in hand can go to the bank for operating loans, but they lose control over most decisions about production on their own land. Contract farming dominates the poultry industry in the US and the pork market is now rapidly undergoing “Chickenization”. “Because peasant-style farming usually takes place on smaller farms, the total output is less than capitalist or entrepreneurial farms. However, their total output per unit of land tends to be higher. This is why, as capitalist agriculture converts peasant-style farms to entrepreneurial and capitalist farms, there is often a drop in productivity.” Holt-Giménez writes “Farmers are nutrient-deficient because they don’t have enough land to grow a balanced diet. These are political, not technical problems.” Yes, access to land is a critical political issue – but can we be sure that the answers are only political, and not in part technical as well? After all, famines predated capitalism, and have occurred in widely varying economic contexts even in the past century. Facing these challenges, farming knowledge and techniques that used to work very well may require serious adaptation. With a good grasp of the way capitalism distorts food production, plus an understanding of the class struggles that permeate the global food business, foodies stand a chance of turning the food movement into an effective force for change.