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Luigi Russi responds to Elaine Graham-Leigh's review of Hungry Capital

BookcoverThe food system is in crisis, and we need a revolution to change it. This is the general thrust of Elaine Graham-Leigh's excellent review of Akram-Lodhi’s Hungry for Change and my own Hungry Capital. Hers is a piece that advances a number of interesting points, as well as voicing a number of critiques about my own work. The point of this short response is not so much to 'rebuff' that criticism - a defensive attitude that characterises academic discourse at its most ossified - but rather to take it as a point of departure for a further exploration into the relationship between food and revolution. This, in order to better differentiate the foci of our inquiries - mine and Graham-Leigh’s -  into the state of the global food system, as well as to articulate the pattern that connects them.

Revolutions as we imagine them, where people take to the streets and make themselves visibly present to power, have occurred, are occurring, and will continue to occur into the future. It is not my point to argue against that - even though this is not something that is explicitly discussed in my book- as though revolutions in the 'everyday' ought to be a 'purer', more refined form that ought to demand our greater respect and attention. As though what is grubby, messy and sometimes violent were something to be shunned. If revolutions of this sort happen, as they do, they need to be understood and engaged with on their own terms, and Graham-Leigh does an excellent job at bringing that point home.

In Hungry Capital, I do not deny this fact, nor the fact that - because food is used as a commodity resulting in the starvation of real people - tumultuous and highly-visible revolutions occur as a way to redress the enormous injustice of the food system. What I try to do, instead, is to bring awareness to the practices of everyday resistance that equally constitute attempts to contest dominant expectations in relation to the production of food. The dominant paradigm translates into the systematic curtailment of peasant modes of farming, all around the world (this is where I do disagree with Graham-Leigh, in that I would dispute that the peasantry has simply been turned into the proletariat in the West - the work of Jan Douwe van der Ploeg offering a number of convincing counter-examples. Peasant farmers do exist there as well, and they get the short end of the stick in ways that are remarkably similar to their counterparts elsewhere in the world).

From the peasant's perspective, the attempt to develop farm resilience through diversification (as in mixed farming), as well as through the establishment of relations of co-production within the farm ecosystem, is a form of resistance that strives to engrave in objects, practices, bodies and knowledges an alternative framing of the relationship with the Earth's ecosystems, and the human dependence on these. As part of that different mode of relating, certain qualities (such as resilience, sustainability and the 'beauty' of a farm) inform the peasant experience, and demand to be kept alive in a distinctive symbolic and material culture. That same culture that is threatened by the framing of ecosystems (and agricultural production within them) as assets that derive their meaning from the calculative apparatus of financial institutions and practices.

The ability/inability to cultivate and represent the experiencing of qualities is a central cause of political conflict. I would, in fact, argue that most conflict is borne of experiences - which people have in conversation with each other and the environment around them - that cannot find representation in dominant symbolic and material cultures. At a very basic level, this applies to the Egypt-style revolutions that Graham-Leigh hints at: if one's hunger does not find adequate representation and is simply relegated to 'collateral damage' in the dominant paradigm, people take to the streets - and rightly so. The very same seed lives, however, in the struggle of peasant farmers to keep their experience alive in the face of being entangled in a wider web of relations that are sometimes directly antithetical to the maintenance and preservation of peasant co-production. And, in either case, contradictions will be present, as both post-revolutionary systems and individual farmers have to position themselves in the set of global economic relations that come knocking at their door. What matters to me, in the end, is that the small, invisible efforts of farmers to survive (and of consumer cultures to try and make those farmers survive) are not obscured under the greater cloak of 'revolution', framed exclusively as a point of systemic discontinuity. Food, in other words, teaches us one thing about revolutions in general: that they can take the strangest of forms, from the peasant's clinging to co-production through the development of alternative cultures of agricultural 'innovation' to the clamor of food riots, in order to give a voice to experiences that are deprived of one.


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