Crops ready for harvest, Kent. Photo: Public Domain Crops ready for harvest, Kent. Photo: Public Domain

The crop picking crisis is revealing the fundamental failures of free-market capitalism and invoking national spirit won’t fix it, argues Kevin Ovenden

In a recent Guardian article ‘Farms still need up to 40,000 UK workers to harvest fruit and veg‘ are details that raise some profound questions about which socialists have convincing points to make and answers to give.

A running issue in the piece is that while there has been a response from UK-based workers to meet the demand for agricultural labour, big farmers are worried that even those who have taken up work will just switch to what they feel are better jobs (pay, conditions, compatibility with their lives) when other parts of the economy open up.

So the complaint is – when you strip it down – that workers will behave like the perfect individual economic actor of capitalist ideology. That is: they will withhold or sell their commodity – their capacity to work – according to supply and demand and maximising individual return.

But we are told this is a good thing and by ruling ideology that it is constitutive of human nature.

For capitalist farmers to complain about that is like a ship’s captain complaining about the weather.

Implicit, of course, is that it is only wider economic hardship and disruption that have provided some labour force to the countryside. It is not the increases in pay and good conditions that market theory says ought to lead to employers introducing in order to attract scarce workers. Those incentives haven’t happened.

All of this shows that the labour market is far more complex than the most general of abstractions where you can posit a simple law of supply and demand. It also shows that the capitalist class don’t really believe that that is a law with the power of the law of gravity.

They situate themselves in defying that law. That includes use of “extra-economic” mechanisms. Thus, flying workers in from another country on a contract where their temporary legal immigration status, their housing and their contractual obligations to a labour agency are all tied to not being free economic agents but to being bonded to a job. That is not some simple economic process like comparing prices and quality of tomatoes on the stalls in the local street market.

It requires all sorts of non-economic constraints and impositions – immigration control, no welfare benefits, and surcharges for using public services. It is political economy.

Second, the industry spokesperson here says she really doesn’t like the government’s crass WWII messaging of a “Land Army” going out to “Pick for Britain”.

That’s revealing. It shows that notwithstanding the odd Covid-spreading VE-Day street party it is not possible for the capitalist class or state to invoke WWII nostalgia to solve what is a big national problem – getting the harvests in: feeding people.

People might have been prepared to “Dig for Victory” (not without a big sense of class antagonism) in the 1940s because Hitler was at the Channel ports. But you are not going to mobilise tens of thousands into the countryside now through playing Vera Lynn.

There would be circumstances in which people would respond to a “national mobilisation” and not only through financial incentive. But that would require a mass feeling of making a collective effort – that every strawberry picked would first make its way into a good diet for ordinary people (poorest first) and not profiteering all along the line. Look at the immense volunteer effort in West London following the Grenfell atrocity.

People won’t do it now not because they are lazy or don’t care. It’s because they know they would be picking for the big landowners and agribusiness not for “Britain”. And they don’t believe they are serfs.

Neither the rigged market nor nationalist ideological exhortations are going to solve this problem – a major problem that has been building for years alongside the crisis of environmental sustainability of British agriculture.

Socialists should put forward a comprehensive answer. A big part is planning the agricultural labour supply based upon good and secure jobs – wherever people come from to take them up.

Another is a fundamental change across the economy and society where everyone can truly feel that getting the harvest in is something of benefit to all, not a money-making machine for agribusiness and the food giants.

The Tory government in Britain cannot begin to do that on its own account. But it can be forced to take some measures.

That does mean rejecting the pseudo-free-market and the pseudo-worker anti-migration arguments we heard so much of over Brexit

Romanian asparagus pickers are on strike in Germany. They defy both the neoliberals and their rigging of the labour market and the xenophobes who have only foreigner-bashing to offer as an answer to a major economic and social dilemma.

Socialists are supporting the workers, as they are at Irish meat plants.

And we have a lot to offer in solving an existential issue: putting good food on everyone’s plate and not seeing it rot in the fields.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.