Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What is food sovereignty?


Originally published in OrganicNZ magazine, 

By Isa Ritchie

Food sovereignty was a hot topic along with concerns over the recent Food Bill (now Food Act 2014), but what does it actually mean? Over the past four years I have been researching food sovereignty for my PhD thesis. I didn’t know what it meant when I first started. I was interested in the free food activities and food activism that seemed to be springing up more and more. I wanted to look at community gardening, dumpster-diving, permaculture and alternative economies around food. During this time I came across food sovereignty literature and got inspired.

La Via Campesina peasant movement

The concept of food sovereignty arose in 1996 from the international peasant movement La Via Campesina, which was formed in 1993 and represents more than 180 groups of small farmers and migrant workers around the world – see viacampesina.org. Via Campesina was disillusioned with the United Nations’ concept of ‘food security’, which is focused on households having access to adequate food. This concept favours food policies that maximise food production and access opportunities, without questioning how, where and by whom food is produced.

The co-option of ‘food security’

The term ‘food security’ has been co-opted by big corporations. Companies like Monsanto were (and still are) putting pressure on the United Nations to support their genetically engineered crops in the name of food security, often at the expense of indigenous people and small-scale farmers.
‘Food security’ offered no real possibilities for transforming the existing system, which is socially and environmentally exploitative. Therefore, Via Campesina called for a new term, one that could not be co-opted by big corporations because its focus is strongly connected with communities having power over their own food system.

Healthy food and farming that empowers people

According to the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty:
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.
It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.
It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.
Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.”
– Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007

A radical critique of corporate food

According to a vast and growing body of research, food sovereignty is a potentially radical and powerful critique of the corporate food industry. It also focuses on alternative models for agriculture that are intended to be more environmentally and socially just. The grass-roots origins of food sovereignty, as well as its inclusive nature, are two of its greatest strengths.
With its strong focus on caring for people and the environment, and its obvious similarity with permaculture, agroecology and indigenous values, it has the ability to connect diverse groups of people variety of different backgrounds. Organic farming shares these values: the International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM, of which Soil & Health/Organic NZ is a member), is based on the four principles of health, ecology, fairness and care.
Food sovereignty has also been used as a platform to influence government policy in several countries including Ecuador, Venezuela, Mali, Bolivia, Nepal, Senegal and some parts of the United States. It is intentionally linked directly to democracy and justice by putting the control of land, water, seeds and natural resources in the hands of the people who produce food. A core purpose of the food sovereignty campaign is to redistribute land and the power over food production to enable marginalised communities to produce their own food.

Food sovereignty in Aotearoa

In my doctoral research, which has been based in Raglan and a few other parts of New Zealand, I have found that a lot of small-scale local food producers already hold shared values that reflect those of the international food sovereignty campaign.
Groups such as Te Waka Kai Ora, the Koanga Institute, various community gardens, permaculturists and members of Soil & Health have been working towards similar goals and resisting similar corporate powers. 
We can also learn a lot from how food activists and organisations in other countries have influenced their governments to do more to support sustainable food production. In the face of a global corporate system that works by a process of alienation, the most powerful thing we can do is practice connectedness.

Isa Ritchie is a researcher and writer: www.nourishingrevolution.blogspot.co.nz

[SIDEBAR]

The 6 pillars of food sovereignty

1.    Focuses on food for people: The right to healthy and culturally appropriate food is the basic legal demand underpinning food sovereignty. Guaranteeing it requires policies that support diversified food production in each region and country. Food is not simply another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit.
2.    Values food providers: Many smallholder farmers suffer violence, marginalisation and racism from corporate landowners and governments. People are often pushed off their land by mining concerns or agribusiness. Agricultural workers can face severe exploitation and even bonded labour. Although women produce most of the food in the global south, their role and knowledge are often ignored, and their rights to resources and as workers are violated. Food sovereignty asserts food providers’ right to live and work in dignity.
3.    Localises food systems: Food must be seen primarily as sustenance for the community and only secondarily as something to be traded. Under food sovereignty, local and regional provision takes precedence over supplying distant markets, and export-orientated agriculture is rejected. The ‘free trade’ policies that prevent developing countries from protecting their own agriculture, for example through subsidies and tariffs, are also inimical to food sovereignty.
4.    Puts control locally: Food sovereignty places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations on local food providers and respects their rights. They can use and share them in socially and environmentally sustainable ways that conserve diversity. Privatisation of such resources, for example through intellectual property rights regimes or commercial contracts, is explicitly rejected.
5.    Builds knowledge and skills: Technologies, such as genetic engineering, that undermine food providers’ ability to develop and pass on knowledge and skills needed for localised food systems are rejected. Instead, food sovereignty calls for appropriate research systems to support the development of agricultural knowledge and skills.
6.    Works with nature: Food sovereignty requires production and distribution systems that protect natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding energy-intensive industrial methods that damage the environment and the health of those that inhabit it.

Nyéléni 2007 – Forum for Food Sovereignty, www.foodsovereignty.org

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Draft abstract

I have been working on an abstract (brief summary at the beginning) for my thesis.

Abstract

This is an ethnography of alternative food networks; of food sovereignty social economics. More specifically it is an ethnography of a community of small-scale local food providers in a small coastal township in Aotearoa [New Zealand].  Through the lens provided by the values and perspectives of these food providers, the global corporate food system is critiqued. Through their practices, small-scale solutions and alternatives are constructed to the widely recognised problems associated with the environmental and social exploitation attributed to the current dominant systems.

I came to this research with a deep commitment to social justice, and a deep concern for our ecosystems on this planet. My focus on food has been influenced by experiences of food insecurity in my childhood and observations of abject poverty; by ongoing negotiations in my life around food as healthy, ethical and affordable; by an acute awareness of the ruthless social and environmental exploitation involved in the corporate food industry; by a deliberately cultivated attitude of optimism, and by a strong compulsion to search for and promote more sustainable models of food production.

Over the course of this research I learned about various food democratisation initiatives throughout the country. These included community gardens, seed banks, free shops, dumpster diving, land-sharing, food co-ops and other forms of food hubs, courses, workshops and internships, sustainability focussed intentional communities and eco-villages, revivals of traditional Māori gardening, groups focussed on planting public fruit trees, groups focussed on harvesting fruit that would otherwise go to waste, and wild foraging initiatives, among others. I also learned about initiatives based in various different countries, from the car-park community gardens in the largely deserted urban slums of Detroit to the allotment gardens of Hawaii.  On some level, it is evident that all these small-scale local initiatives are connected, if only in that they are a response by community to the tensions of struggle and scarcity created by the globalising corporate system. They present a logical, even obvious, response based on the minimal agency that people do have in a world where resources and power is becoming more and more concentrated ‘in the hands of the few’. They present a deliberate focus on solutions, and on what is possible and achievable by small groups of people with minimal resources, and they present a protest against the alienation inflicted by the global corporate food system.  I argue that these food-based initiatives are connected, not only with food sovereignty, but also with movements towards localised economies and alternative economics, such as Living Economies. They are connected with what has been called the ‘Global Justice Movement’, which protests corporate and government exploitation.


Thoughts?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Paradigms of connectedness for sustainable food systems: food sovereignty, agroecology, permaculture, indigenous values and 'working with nature'

This is based on a presentation I did a few weeks ago at am interdisciplinary conference at Massey University, on 'Working with Nature'. The second part of it is quite similar to the last presentation I posted, because I still think it's a good idea.



Western thought is dominated by false dichotomies, perhaps none is more pervasive or absurd than the one separating human beings from ‘nature’.   Whereas ‘nature’ was once a wilderness to be tamed, the mainstream perspective has shifted to perceive it as precious, fragile and in need of our protection. This view does not allow any room for human beings to exist within nature, and yet, scientifically, it is impossible to see us in any other way. What lies at the heart of this problem is a fracture in dominant Western theory which has resulted in ontologies of violence, alienation and disconnection. These have potentiated many of humanity’s most embarrassing historical episodes of social and environmental exploitation. In order to begin to remedy these issues, interconnectedness with ‘nature’ must be recognised in terms of social, economic and environmental ecosystems. In recent years, food, an integral part of culture and daily life, has become increasingly politicised, in relation to globalising corporate capitalism as well as with local struggles for food sovereignty. This presentation draws on the indigenous Māori value of whakapapa, which can be described as the journey of things through space and time as well as three paradigms of connectedness which are relevant to food production: permaculture, agroecology and food sovereignty.  These paradigms are all examples of ‘working within nature’, rather than against it. They are all compatible with each other and overlapping. Each has been developed with careful reflection regarding the function of complex ecosystems and indigenous knowledge, and are based on ontologies of connectedness in juxtaposition to globalising capitalism’s ontology of alienation.  These theoretical strands are illuminated by ethnographic reflections from my doctoral fieldwork focussed on local food and food sovereignty in New Zealand.  I argue that genuine pathways to sustainability and resilience are only possible through agricultural models based on ecosystems and indigenous knowledge systems, and through the proliferation and support of small-scale community initiatives.

According to Plato Heraclitus and Parmenides once had an argument over a river. Parmenides said it was a static thing. Heraclitus said it was constantly changing. Parmenides won and went on to inspire dominant Western philosophers theory, particularly the philosophers who lead to the creation of modern science, such as pythagoras.


This is one way of telling a story about a rift in Western philosophy - and  of the subsequent fracturing that has allowed us to become more and more disconnected from 'nature', from our ecosystems, and from ourselves.

 Heraclitus went on to feature in motivational posters:


He also inspired the philosophical tradition followed by Hegel, Marx and Friere, among others.

This tradition is less black and white than ‘logic’, it is more holistic and tends to integrate rather than just dismiss different perspectives.

This is the tradition I was unknowingly drawn to, possibly by intuition, possibly because it reflects my upbringing and the emersion in indigenous Māori culture I experienced as a young child.

 This separation, and countless other examples of fracturing discourse has precipitated a perspective of human beings as separate to nature – culminating in gross distortions
Of our significance
Of our relationship to the world

Older ideas of Taming nature have given way to more recent notions of saving the world.

We may be incapable of seeing “nature” accurately, but “nature as separate” is a very strange concept, to begin with.



There is no word in Māori for nature as separate from humans.

There is no word for “Wilderness” in many languages.

Indigenous perspectives tend to be much more inclusive and interconnected.

The concept of “nature” as separate from “human beings" is essentially alienating and embarrassingly (ironically) unscientific


What we can be sure of is that we are facing major challenges to our survival, as a species, and this awareness could potentially lead to doing things better.

Looking out the window of a plane, have you ever noticed how much land is used for our food production?

We have shaped large chunks of this planet into our personal bread-basket. 

If we are going to start ‘working with nature’ this is a good place to focus

A critical perspective is important here…

While there is plenty to be critical of, it is also helpful to look for solutions, to find working models and inspiration.

Genuine sustainability must come from the grass-roots, upward. It must be holistic and multi-faceted.

Economic, social and environmental – genuine sustainability is synonymous with healthy interconnected ecosystems.


Agroecology comes from ecology – from the ‘natural sciences’ – it takes an ecological approach to agriculture. 

A whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences.

Linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities.




Sparked in 1996 by Vía Campesina, an international peasant movement representing more than 180 international organisations advocating for peasants, migrant agricultural workers, indigenous food providers and small-scale farmers.
•Producing food for people, not for the global commodity market
•Valuing food producers
•Localising food systems
•Local control over resources
•Building skills and knowledge

•Working with Nature


Bill Mollison:
Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.

Permaculture (permanent agriculture/culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.


It is a system which can be applied to anything – society/community, economics…

Local food map by Te Mauri Tau

Whaingaroa (Raglan)
•Whaingaroa is a dynamic community engaged in activities related to food sovereignty. 
•Groups and initiatives are closely interconnected. 
•Strong focus on ‘local’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’
•There is still a long way to go.
•Supermarket culture: a lot of food is still purchased from the town supermarkets or from Hamilton
•Not enough local food producers yet (more coming?)

•Poverty and social exclusion vs the ‘green bubble’


 Interconnectedness is key
Food sovereignty is about relationships

Gardens at Kaiwhenua Organics

What can we learn from the local food producers of Whaingaroa?
•People can lead incredibly rich lives without much material wealth
Balancing the economic, social and environmental  - and viewing them as interconnected
•Strong critiques of the corporate food system: control, ecological damage and exploitation
•People have gotten too disconnected from food: need to reconnect, Food needs to be real
•The right to have access to food…
•Food should be: local, sustainably produced, safe and abundant.
•Supporting local food producers: avoiding competition, working together
•Respecting indigenous values, learning from indigenous wisdom




•Indigenous systems have been developed alongside ecological systems – necessarily –
•We can learn a lot from ecological systems, from the indigenous knowledge systems in our local landscape

Without considering the flows and cycles of ecosystems, without considering ourselves part of them, we cannot move past sustainability as a catchword


Through understanding the interconnectedness we can repair fragmented ontologies, heal rifts and avoid environmental, social and economic exploitation.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pathways to Sustainability through Food Sovereignty and Agroecology: a Holistic Approach




This post is based on a presentation I did at a sustainability symposium at the University of Waikato a few weeks ago.

Abstract:
Food sovereignty and agroecology have been the focus of much academic attention in recent years, although very little has been published on these topics in a New Zealand context. These paradigms have been instrumental in highlighting multifaceted problems of social and environmental exploitation emerging from the existing industrialised food systems and identifying more sustainable solutions. This presentation draws on preliminary findings from doctoral research focused on food sovereignty in New Zealand. Qualitative data was were gathered through ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with people who produce, organise and distribute local food in a small coastal New Zealand township, as well as in several contrasting settings. It presents diverse understandings around organic and local food, environmental protection, community resilience and living economies. The findings are that genuine pathways to sustainability are possible through agricultural models based on ecosystems and indigenous knowledge systems, and through the proliferation and support of small-scale community initiatives.

Sustainability has become a catchword…

A linguistic representation of a cultural shift in perspective that has increasingly necessary in the face of emerging global crises – climate, food, waste, energy and inequality

This wave has reached the point where it’s no longer just a few hippies waving placards, it is increasingly ubiquitous



The movement that first became mainstream for my generation with the likes of Captain Planet has now reached critical mass

But does this mean the words are being over-used? Green-washed?

Has sustainability lost meaning? Has it been corporatised?


A critical perspective is important here…

While there is plenty to be critical of, it is also helpful to look for solutions, to find working models and inspiration

Genuine sustainability must come from the grass-roots, upward. It must be holistic and multi-faceted.

Economic, social and environmental – genuine sustainability is synonymous with healthy interconnected ecosystems.


Agroecology is a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences: linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities. It's also a less ‘hippy’ term for permaculture


Permaculture (permanent agriculture/culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.

It is a system which can be applied to anything – society/community, economics…


Sparked in 1996 by Vía Campesina, an international peasant movement representing more than 180 international organisations advocating for peasants, migrant agricultural workers, indigenous food providers and small-scale farmers.

Food sovereignty is about:
  •   Producing food for people, not for the global commodity market
  •   Valuing food producers
  •   Localising food systems
  •   Local control over resources
  •   Building skills and knowledge
  •   Working with Nature






This local food map was made by one of the local groups in Whaingaroa, where my research is based.

Whaingaroa is a dynamic community engaged in activities related to food sovereignty

Groups and initiatives are closely interconnected

There is a strong focus on ‘local’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’

There is still a long way to go....
Supermarket culture: a lot of food is still purchased from the town supermarkets or from Hamilton
Not enough local food producers yet (more coming?)
Poverty and social exclusion vs the ‘green bubble’



Interconnectedness is key

Food sovereignty is about relationships


What can we learn from the local food producers of Whaingaroa?
* People can lead incredibly rich lives without much material wealth
* Balancing the economic, social and environmental  - and viewing them as interconnected
* There are strong critiques, here, of the corporate food system: control, ecological damage and exploitation
* People have gotten too disconnected from food: need to reconnect, Food needs to be real
* Food should be: local, sustainably produced, safe and abundant.
* There is a strong focus on supporting local food producers: avoiding competition, working together
* There is also a strong focus on respecting indigenous values and learning from indigenous wisdom


Indigenous systems have been developed alongside ecological systems – necessarily –

We can learn a lot from ecological systems, from the indigenous knowledge systems in our local landscape

Without considering the flows and cycles of ecosystems, without considering ourselves part of them, we cannot move past sustainability as a catchword


Through understanding the interconnectedness we can repair fragmented ontologies, heal rifts and avoid environmental, social and economic exploitation.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Vandana Shiva and Monocultures of the Mind


I'm so excited Vandana Shiva is coming to New Zealand for the food conference in February. I absolutely love her work. One of my supervisors asked me to write a bit about Shiva as I'm looking at using her writing as theory in my thesis. This is what I wrote:

Vandana Shiva is both a geneticist and an environmental activist and thinker. Her work is particularly focussed on threats to biodiversity and the impacts of biotechnology (Shiva 2005, 2012).  In Earth Democracy (2005) Shiva is outspoken against corporate globalisation which destroys grassroots democracy through “new enclosures of the commons” which are based on violence:
Instead of a culture of abundance, profit-driven profit driven globalization creates cultures of exclusion, dispossession and scarcity. In fact, globalization’s of all beings and resources into commodities robs diverse species and people of their rightful share of ecological, cultural and political space. The “ownership” of the rich is based on the “dispossession” of the poor. It is the common public resources of the poor which are privatised, and the poor who are disowned economically, politically and culturally (2005, 2).

Shiva is particularly critical of the patenting of genetics and the concept of ‘ownership’ of life and the rhetoric of ‘ownership society’ which she describes as ‘anti-life’. She argues that from this perspective living things have no intrinsic value and no integrity.  She argues that the commons are the “highest expressions of economic democracy” (2005, 3). She also describes the movement against corporate globalisation as one toward ‘Earth Democracy’ the fate of which concerns the wellbeing of all living beings on earth. She describes an intentional shift from “vicious cycles of violence in which suicidal cultures, suicidal economies and the politics of suicide feed on each other to virtuous cycles of creative non-violence in which living cultures nourish living democracies and living economies (sharing resources equitably to create meaningful livelihoods)” (2005, 5). 

Earth Democracy, then is not just a concept but incorporates diverse practice reclaiming commons, resources, livelihoods, freedoms, dignity, identity and peace – rooted locally but also interconnected with the world and universe (2005, 5).   Shiva argues that ecological security and ecological identities are our most basic and fundamental: “We are the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. And reclaiming democratic control over our food and water and our ecological survival is the necessary project for our freedom (2005, 5). Earth Democracy enables us to create living democracies of participation in decisions regarding our food, water and air, systems which are based on intrinsic worth of all aspects of the environment, including people.  It includes the “ancient wisdom and tradition of non-severability and interconnectedness” along with “the values, worldviews and actions of diverse movements working for peace, justice and sustainability” (2005, 7).

In Monocultures of the mind (2012), Shiva discusses the importance of local knowledge systems which are disappearing and being colonised by dominant Western knowledge and the globalising system. She argues that although  Western knowledge has been constructed as universal, it is actually just a globalised version of a local parochial system based in a particular culture, gender and class (2012, 9). Therefore, the common dichotomy between universal and local is misplaced when applied to Western and indigenous traditions because what is perceived as ‘universal’ is actually a local system “which has spread world wide through intellectual colonisation” (Shiva 2012, 10). Shiva argues that a genuine universal knowledge system would spread through openness, whereas the globalising system spreads through violence and misrepresentation, the first level of which is “not to see them (local/indigenous) as knowledge,” but as ‘primitive’ and unscientific (2012, 10).  This undermines local epistemologies, making them invisible and vulnerable to collapse against the force of the uniquely ‘scientific’ and universal Western.  Shiva argues this is actually less connected with knowledge than it is with power:
The models of modern science which have encouraged these perceptions were derived less from familiarity with actual scientific practice and more from familiarity with idealised versions which gave science a special epistemological status. Positivism, verificationism, falsificationism were all based on the assumption that unlike traditional, local beliefs of the world, which are socially constructed, modern scientific knowledge was thought to be determined without social mediation. (2012, 11)

This notion that Western science is somehow objective and devoid of social influence, is something Shiva is highly critical of, along with the conception that the broader Western knowledge paradigm is superior. That Western knowledge is fashioned as scientific “assigns a kind of sacredness or social immunity to the Western system,” which is above the indigenous traditions that it excludes.
Just as intensive corporate farming practices create unsustainable biological monocultures which erode diversity, the dominant scientific paradigm “breeds a monoculture of the mind” (2012, 12) It makes local alternative knowledge systems disappear by destroying the possible conditions required for alternatives to exist.  It does this through its ‘superior’ exclusivity and through a violent separation which destroys diverse local meaning.  Shiva states that in local knowledge systems there is no artificially imposed separation between ‘resources’: “the forest and the field are in ecological continuum” and local agriculture is modelled on forest ecology and both supply food (2012, 14). In contrast the supposedly ‘scientific’ system segregates forestry from agriculture. Forestry is reduced to resources like timber and is no longer connected to food. “Knowledge giving systems which have emerged from the food giving capacities of the forest are therefore eclipsed and finally destroyed, both through neglect and aggression” (2012, 14).  Shiva uses the examples of ‘scientific management’ based on narrow commercial interests and enforced through legislation in India to illustrate her arguments on the destruction of diverse knowledge systems (2012, 18).
The existing principles of scientific forest management leads to the destruction of the tropical forest ecosystem because it is based on the objective modelling of the diversity of the living forest on the uniformity of the assembly line. Instead of society being modelled on the forest, as it is in the case of forest cultures, the forest is modelled on the factory... which transforms the forest from a renewable to a non-renewable resource. (Shiva 2012, 19)

Shiva argues that the dominant knowledge system is inherently colonising and culturally fragmenting in its effects. It alienates knowledge from wisdom.  The political implications of such a system system are fundamentally inconsistent with sustainability, equality and social justice. For these reasons it is a particularly dangevous, violent and destructive monoculture of the mind.  In the face of this reality, Shiva advocates for the democratisation of knowledge as “a central precondition for human liberation because the contemporary knowledge system excludes the humane by its very structure” (2012, 60). She envisions this democratisation involving the redefining of knowledge so that local and diverse become legitimate and indispensable, and globalisation and universalisation are conceived as abstractions which have violated this reality. This shift, according to Shiva, is:
…important to the project of human freedom because it frees knowledge from the dependency on established regimes of thought, making it simultaneously more autonomous and more authentic. Democratisation based on such an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledge’ is both a viable and necessary component of the larger processes of democratisation because the earlier paradigm is in crisis and in spite of its power to manipulate, is unable to protect both nature and human survival. (2012, 62)

References:
Shiva, V. 2012. Monocultures of the mind: perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology. New Delhi: Natraj.

Shiva, V. 2005. Earth democracy: justice, sustainability and peace. Brooklyn: South End Press

Monday, October 27, 2014

Anarchy in the PhD: David Graeber as Theory







I'm really excited that my chief supervisor is encouraging me to use David Graeber's work as theory in my doctoral thesis. Graeber's writing is actually engaging and interesting... and doesn't require an academic dictionary to read!

A good description, certainly, requires appeal to theory, but in ethnography, theory is properly deployed in the service of description rather than the other way around. (Graeber 2009, 509)

David Graeber is a highly-regarded anthropologist and anarchist activist known for his involvement in the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ movement (Walker 2012). As Graeber points out, what has been labelled ‘anti-globalisation’ is actually only resisting the form of globalisation that only applies to capital and commodities, which undermines the sovereignty of people and enforces heavy state boundaries.  The movement is pro-globalisation in terms of human freedom and has been active in resisting imposed boundaries such as state borders (2002, 2009). He defines contemporary anarchism as a movement about reinventing democracy through practicing new forms of decentralised organization which, he notes, have often been based on examples from outside the Western tradition (2002, 9). Graeber seems to actively avoid using academic jargon, making his work widely accessible. Instead of using terms like hegemony, Graeber describes forms of oppression which are deeply internalized including racism, sexism, class bias, and homophobia, all of which are forms of violence (2009, 352).He is also known for his work on an anthropological theory of value which explains value as a model of human meaning-making, much more complex and broad than reductive economist paradigms.

Strong critique of Neoliberal ideology
Graeber argues that Neoliberal ideology has been particularly effective in making itself seem natural and inevitable they combine the presumably natural desire to own things (2009, 729). In his book Debt, the firsty 5000 years, Graeber critiques the assumptions made by Neoliberal thinkers and economists make, dating back to Adam Smith. He talks about ‘the myth of barter’: economists often talk about money as a common-sense alternative to the old fashioned barter societies which were difficult and messy, however Graeber states that anthropologists have never discovered any such ‘barter society’. Bartering only really occurred between potentially enemy tribes. Within tribes complex kinship relationships meant gifting and exchanges rich in social meaning that take personal relationships into account and that functional ancient credit systems proceeded money by thousands of years (2011, 34-50).  Graeber exposes the religion of Adam Smith showing how his myth of a separate economic world has now become economic common sense. He also describes a false dichotomy of market and state as the trap of the 20th century. Markets and state are constructed as opposites, and the only possible options. Actually, he argues, stateless societies tend to be those without markets and history shows that markets are almost always created by, dependent on, and reinforced by states, they require states and government has almost always been involved in big money systems (2011, 71). The only known historical markets which were relatively ‘free’ of state intervention were ancient Islamic ones that functioned precisely because of Islam’s ban of ursury (lending money for interest) (2011, 321).  Graeber claims that economists agree that neoliberal ‘markets’ aren’t real: they are mathematical models imagining a self-contained world where everyone has the same motivation, knowledge and self-interest (2011, 114), this fits with Smith, Hobbes and Locke’s imaginary world where 30-40 year old men immerge from the earth fully formed and must decide whether to kill or trade with one-another (210). Graeber describes the economic perspective of turning human relations into mathematics as inherently violent (2011, 14). He argues that economic laws are not rational but theological, based on the Christian assumption of self-interest, that we are all sinners (2011, 332, 333) and that “any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons” (2011, 385). He claims that it is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it primarily been organised around free-labour, and that it’s not about freedom (2011, 350, 351).

Critiques of the state
From an anarchist perspective such as Graeber’s, the coercive force of the state is everywhere. Most of all, it adheres in anything large, heavy, and economically valuable that cannot easily be hidden away. Nations are seen as purely imaginary constructs which become "real" when they threaten to send in the army (2009, 283). Graeber describes the ontology of the market and state as one that uses language to assert its power as if it were a natural or scientific law and discusses how this conception of ‘forces’ may stem from the Western language being based on nouns: static objects relying on largely invisible forces to demonstrate obvious movement.  He claims that the while the state and the market operate on ontologies of violence, that the activists he has worked with operate on an entirely different ontology: one of imagination. The former is continually engaged in destruction and maintaining lopsided power dynamics while the latter is continuously in the process of creation (2009, 511, 512). He perceives the wider movement of the “left” as one based on the premise that human beings actively create the world we live in, therefore there is no reason we should not be able to create one we actually like:  “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (2009, 515).

Violence and Privilege
Graeber sees violence as the only form of human interaction that could possibly not be considered communication as one does not have to consider the other person very much to hit them, violence is connected with disconnection.  He echoes feminist theorists, constructing patriarchy as violence against women and describes how the underprivileged are constantly engaged in interpretive labour, imagining how the more-privileged see things: “victims of structural violence do indeed tend to care about their beneficiaries far more than those beneficiaries care about them. In fact, this might well be the single most powerful force preserving such relations-aside from the violence itself” (2009, 517).  He suggests developing a new language in which what was traditionally conceived as “women’s work” is considered the primary form of labour, “and other forms merely variants” (2009, 523).  Graeber uses the term ‘alienation’, drawing on Marx’s concept that alienation occurs when we lose control over the essentially human capacity to create things and the situationist critique of consumer-capitalism as alienating (533). He describes the activist preference for Situationalist theorists over postmodernist. One critique of the Situationalists is that they didn’t write much about oppression like racism and sexism. Graeber argues that this may be precisely what is so powerful about their work:
If we imagine capitalism as a game, then it is one thing to bewail the fate of the losers, or to point out that most players will lose, or even that the rules are written so unfairly that certain categories of player are hound to lose. It is quite another to say that the game destroys the souls even of those who win. To say the latter is to say the game is simply pointless. Even the prize is bad (2009, 526).
‘Freedom’, in without the market, could not possibly be a series of isolated choices, instead, Graeber reconstructs freedom as the ability to choose one’s commitments to others (531).

Human economies
Graeber discusses an anthropological perspective on diverse economies, where everything is very connected, as opposed to the neoliberal ‘market’ economy which is about disconnection. He states that all human relations are based on reciprocity but that not all human interactions are about exchange, only some are (2011, 98, 122). In many societies, to cancel ones debts with another person indicates wanting to cut all ties (and is quite rude unless you are strangers).  Graeber claims that “primitive” money was not used as exchange but to mediate gifts and that what he calls social currencies and human economies are primarily about the rearranging, creation, destruction of things not the accumulation of wealth (2011, 124, 130). Whereas the neoliberal ‘market’ puts a price on people and strips them of inherent value, “In a human economy, each person is unique and of comparable value” (2011, 158). In human economies, money is a way of acknowledging pricelessness of things of meaning which expresses how much we cannot buy and sell human beings and even unique personal possessions. The most functioning free-markets, such as the ancient Islamic ones, where ursury was banned, are actually about cooperation not competition and exhibit codes of honour, trust and mutual aid more typical of human economies  (2011, 208, 385)

Graeber redefines communism as a fundamental part of human society: “from each according to his needs, to each according to his abilities” (2011, 98). He argues that we all act like communists most of the time, in being considerate and helpful, and that capitalism is actually built on a bedrock of communism.  Money is constructed in different ways, as: a tool, credit and debit, measurement, trust, a way of comparing, somewhere in between a commodity and a debt token, a symbolic IOU (2011, 75). Graeber also describes money as something like magic: it only works if we believe in it (2011, 342).  He uses anthropological examples to illustrate that more egalitarian societies than ours exist and that slipping into hierarchy is not inevitable, but must always be guarded against (2011, 116).  He looks at the historical connection between property and slavery, and claims that Ancient Greeks would see the difference between a slave and an indebted wage-labourer as a legal nicety, at best (2011, 211). He describes corporations as inherently violent “structures designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit” (2011, 320).  He describes a contemporary middle class crisis of inclusion in which everyone is encouraged to grab a chunk of the profits of their own exploitation (2011, 376), but despite this dominant ideology which treats the basis of sociality itself (reciprocity, debt and communism) as abusive, demonic and criminal, people continue to love one-another (2011, 379).

References
Graeber, D. 2002. The new anarchists. The New Left Review, 13.
Graeber, D. 2009. Direct action: an ethnography. Oakland: AK Press
Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: the first 5000 years
Walker, H. 2012. On anarchist anthropology. Anthropology of this century, 3.