At one point in time, agriculture predominantly involved the cultivation of crops to feed one’s own family through subsistence-based methods or through community webs in which individuals could trade or sell food to sustain human life. Today, there has been a massive shift towards the emergence of the “consumer society”, a society in which consumers now have an abundance of choices in regards to goods and services offered in various areas including agriculture. Thus, a massive shift in centralization, industrialization, and mass production of food has taken us from a society of producers to a society of consumers. Centralization and mass production have taken over the agriculture industry, with much of society wrapped up in the fast food industry or pre-packaged foods to meet nutritional needs. Zygmunt Bauman’s novel “Consuming Life” contributes to this topic by pointing out the transition to a society of consumers, and how a significant proportion of people have been deprived of the benefits and have been excluded from participating in this “consumer society”. On another note, J.K. Gibson-Graham’s novel encourages readers to recognize economic diversity, or alternative models to the predominantly capitalistic model. Thus, their arguments would most likely support the community-based initiatives taken on by communities as an alternative economic intervention. They also support the notion that people are in control of the economy due to our own decisions made at the community level.
Prior to the shift towards a consumer society, members were thoroughly engaged primarily as ‘producers’, this premise revolved around a society that was ‘work-based’. In contrast, Bauman’s arguments suggest that our ‘post-modern’ society has transformed into one where society now regards and engages its members as consumers. This shift from the role of the producer to the consumer has been exemplified in the agricultural industry as a contributor to increasing consumer activity and choice of goods. Therefore, I would have to say that the statement is true in regards to much of what we see in the developed world, in that the centralization, mass production and intense capitalization of agriculture does conform with Bauman’s central argument in his novel “Consuming Life”. As Bauman (2007) puts it: “to consume . . . means to invest in one’s own social membership, which in a society of consumers translates as ‘saleability’: obtaining qualities for which there is already a market demand” (p. 56).
Essentially, Bauman’s main argument in regards to the transition towards a society of consumers, surrounds the idea that individuals are only socially connected to the mainstream economy in their capacity as consumers. The idea is that now society revolves around the premise that as long as you have the capacity to purchase goods, you are granted economic citizenship and therefore there is little need to be a producer (Russell, The Take, 2013). As Brahm Ahmadi, points out the “industrialization forms agriculture industry has resulted in the commodification of food in such a way it is now something to be bought, sold, and traded on the market” (Ahmadi, Commodification of Food, 2008). The downside of this process is that people who do not have the financial means are excluded. Thereby, these individuals who are unable to consume due to circumstances such as being unemployed or discrimination are what Bauman labels the “underclass”. As Bauman (2007) points out: “Collateral damage left along the track of the triumphant progress of consumerism is scattered all over the social spectre of contemporary ‘developed’ societies” (pg.122). Here, Bauman points out the new category of population, the ‘underclass’ who were previously absent from the social divisions that have now become the victims of ‘consumerism’. These individuals have little to no ability to consume or be consumed, as evidenced in cities such as Detroit where citizens are forced to rely on party stores and gas stations to purchase and consume food. The clip, The People’s Grocery, helps to showcase the consequences of living in a ‘food dessert’, essentially the aftermath of large-scale grocery stores closing due to poor business (Ahmadi. 2008). Cheap processed foods and fast food restaurants largely dominate the landscapes of these cities, and full service grocery options are absent (Wang & Holt Gimenez and Shattuck, 2011). This term is highly misleading as these communities have been discriminated against both socially and economically and thus subjected to this form of food system.
For Bauman, the shift to a ‘society of consumer’ has also dramatically changed the ‘produce role of cooking’, this has been evidenced in cities like Detroit and Oakland, California, where ‘incompetent’ consumers are left to scramble to fast food restaurants, liquor stores, and party stores to meet their nutrional needs. Bauman also points out that not only has the role of producer in society eroded but the role of being the person producing food in the household has also diminished as well. As Bauman (2007) points out:
“We can surmise that what kept household members round family tables, and made the family table into an instrument of the integration and reassertion of the family as a durably bonded group, was in no small measure the productive element in consumption. Food ready to eat could be found at the family table but nowhere else: the gathering at the common dinner table was the last stage of a lengthy productive process that started in the kitchen and even beyond, in the family field or workshop (pg.78)
Thus, prior to the intense capitalization of agriculture, there was a time when the only place you could find prepared food was at the table being ladled on to your plate. This role has now been eroded and made illegitimate and irrelevant by this vast society of consumption, he also points out that maybe teaching people how to cook can be a simple way to defuse the authority of capital. Thus, the cases of Oakland and Detroit show that it is possible for people to face all of these processes of erosion and yet figure out there is something else they can do now to change their situation without reaching back to past of being a ‘society of producers’, they have begun to move to something new where they are the producers and owners of their work.
Following the readings of J.K. Gibson-Graham, I think that the subjection of consumers to this food system can be changed, although it would take a lot more than implementing proposals such as the Bush administration’s ‘Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Initiative Act’ to end hunger (Ahmadi & Ahn, 2004). I think that the type of work that ‘The People’s Grocery’ and Brahm Ahmadi does is evidence of this and that subjects can continue to foster and nurture these types of activities and their transition into the “post-capitalist” economy. I think Gibson-Graham would support the proposal of a “community economy”, as the authors have said that it “might guide the process of building different economies” and that the community economy “is an acknowledged space of social interdependency and self-formation”. Therefore, there has been a new subjectivity of the land as they have taken over.
Gibson-Graham asks us to recognize even in the wake of disaster (ie. being left out of the economy) was that they created a new subjectivity called ‘worker-owner’ (Russell, The Take, 2013). The cases like Detroit where land was re-taken and working for themselves as worker-owners. Not only do they own the means of production, but the subjectivity also depends on the fact that these people do not need to rely on local trading anymore since they can rely on the land they live on to get what they need. However, this does not mean that they are cut off from the rest of society, but they are less connected than before on a global scale. Locally however, connections to land and people have grown deeper and richer thereby fostering a sense of collective ownership in regards to meeting their agricultural needs (Ahmadi, Connection to Land, 2008).
In my opinion the case of ‘The People’s Grocery’ is evidence that change is possible and that it is indeed occurring in cities across the globe. In Oakland, California, a project founded in 2002 called the ‘People’s Grocery’ which sought to build a local grocery store in the community of 30,000 residents (Ahmadi, The People’s Grocery, 2008). It became evident that there ware no local grocery stores, but an abundance of liquor stores where residents did the bulk of their grocery shopping. Creating a local food system that support the health and the economy of the community and benefit those who have been left out of the system (ex. disabled, race) and help create a perspective of food justice. Essentially, the situation these people have been faced with reiterates what Bauman points out as the ‘underclass’. There is no food retail in this community as big box stores have destroyed local ventures and thus when capital failed to roll in, the major stores left and residents were left with minimal choices in this consumer society creating a severe detriment to the local economy.
Therefore, I do feel that this capitalistic food system can be changed. As evidenced in cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles, it has become evident that people are starting to position themselves away from the traditional capitalistic system and have integrated themselves into a more local and self-sustaining system. For a city like Detroit, which was once the colossus of the U.S. automotive industry, it would seem absurd to think that a city that has been essentially left out of the main market economy would be able to change its fortunes through the integration of agriculture within its city limits (Choo, 2011). I feel that programs such as the one run by Brham Ahmadi have shown that the concept of ownership is malleable. Thus, a resocialization of the economy has occurred, not only in the sense that capital has once again begun to flow through these cities, but a sense of community has resulted from this production. Thus, Bhahm Ahmadi points out while doing an interview on a food justice and sustainability panel, people want change (Harper, Ahmadi, Patel & Henderson, 2012). Thus, realizing a macro level shift in the public shows that people want to support local business and do something meaningful in transforming community and transform the place they love. Thus, Ahmadi points to the creation of local economic development and resiliency and revitalizing neighborhoods that have been destroyed by giant capitalistic enterprises and the importance the food justice movement plays in creating social change in creating a new social status of being the ‘producer’ and in creating bonds of solidarity.
Choo’s article questions whether urban farming is a plausible initiative that would save declining cities such as Detroit, however there are questions on whether the law and the government will allow such projects to prosper. Across the United States, thousands of urban farms have sprouted up across empty lots and rooftops, not only has produce been introduced to the city but animals have also become residents (Choo, 2011). Many of these municipalities have embraced this change as a means to combat common urban problems such as hunger and pollution and in making these cities more sustainable and healthy (Choo, 2011). Much of the reasoning behind this is that local land use regulations have lagged behind the quickly growing phenomenon, with many not recognizing agricultural activities. Therefore, while waiting for the law to catch up many of these farmers have been operating under a cloud of extralegality (Choo, 2011). Following zoning laws of splicing up cities into various zones (ie. industrial, residential, commercial, etc.), each with their own permitted and conditional uses contributing to urban sprawl, city dwellers often found themselves reliant on a vehicle to meet their needs (Choo, 2011). Thus, advocates of urban agriculture seek to bring fresh produce to local communities with littler to no markets or access to these foods. These gardens seek to benefit the community in many ways not only economically, but socially as well in helping to promote healthy living and building a sense of community in a changing economic climate. As the article puts it:
“When vast swaths of land in cities like Detroit and Cleveland are abandoned by residents and businesses headed elsewhere, it’s better to grow something on it than to let it just sit there” (Choo, 2011)
I believe that Gibson-Graham would argue that the people of Detroit have moved through this transformation (ie. society of producers to a society of consumers) and are on the cusp of something else. In this sense people who have repurposed these vacant lots have found spaces in the new economy and new ways to act and behave and have therefore created a new subject status for themselves in promoting ownership of the agriculture process. Gibson-Graham open their book by pointing out that we have a choice between being “brassed off” and being more creative in our adaptive responses to which the dominant economy is changing. They encourage people to give up trying to fight the dominant economy and instead out a way to take over the dominant economy (Russell, The Take, 2013). From within these new places created by the economy, we can produce new subjectivities and build our way back into the community and most importantly this process of building back now is going to put pressure on institutions to change. Thus, in regards to consumers being subjected to this capitalistic system, Gibson-Graham want us to realize that these are passages through a changing economy that would restore our control over that economy.
Through the connection between food and land, traditions of agriculture in building sustainable and organic methods of growing food, there is an opportunity to begin to rebuild relationships with nature so that urban consumers can connect with the environment and become a solution to creating a healthier world. The process also helps create more jobs and local businesses, so wealth stays within the community. The video ‘The Commodification of Food’ describes the efforts of Ahmadi and his group to change the current system of production to serve the people who have been excluded from the system (Ahmadi, 2008). However, it is important to take note that these changes are often undermined as “larger corporate stores are better positioned to take advantage of these resources than most community efforts” (Harper, Ahmadi, Patel & Henderson, 2012). Thus, without proper requirements that would privilege community-based food system alternatives, these local initiatives are unlikely to make a substantial difference in their attempt to bring food justice and change the system. As Ahmadi, points out in the radio broadcast, Michelle Obama’s pledge to eradicate food desserts within 7 years, will undermine community initiatives with corporations such as Wal-Mart positioning themselves to take advantage of the “free public money” being used to draw these stores into these ‘food dessert” communities (Harper, Ahmadi, Patel & Henderson, 2012). It will be important for locals and the government to understand that these types of solutions do not address inequality or help to build community solidarity or social capital. Change will need to come in local projects with the community support, as Ahmadi points out small projects alone cannot close the gap on hunger, but neither is introducing big box corporate stores going to solve the problem on its own as well (Harper, Ahmadi, Patel & Henderson, 2012).
Therefore, I think if change is to occur in this system, there will need to be a mix of both routes, however I feel that an emphasis more towards projects such as ‘The People’s Grocery’ are more effective in the long run in building social capital for the future. Organization such as the Black Panther Party who choice to take matters into their own hands and address poverty in African American communities in the 1960’s (Patel, 2012). Here is a group that distributed food and necessities to the community of Berkeley to meet the vision of social change. Their most successful initiative, a breakfast program, spawned similar initiatives in other cities across the United States showing a universal appreciation for a balanced diet of fresh food (Patel, 2012). However, what makes me feel that change may not be possible is the lack of government support in terms of the system being controlled by dominant forms of capitalocentric corporations and due to increased pressures on the government to provide similar initiatives to meet the needs of people who need it most in a time of fiscal restraint and neo-liberal policies. In turn, these factors played a role in the destruction of the Black Panther’s organization, but it does show that revolutionary and creative processes can spawn the support of people across the country and the globe.
Overall, subjection of consumers to this capitalistic food system can be changed, as evidenced by organizations such as the Black Panthers and the People’s Grocery. These types of food justice movements have not only helped to change the local co-modification of food resources, but have also contributed to the resocialization and rebuilding of their communities. All people regardless of social or economic constraints should have access to the best foods available and organizations such as the ‘People’s Grocery’ seek to create a movement of food justice to promote this effort. Thus, as the article ‘Grabbing the Food Desserts” concludes: “Opening up the food system to more local, democratic alternatives is a good insurance. It could provide immediate, effective access to healthy food while addressing the deeper, structural causes of hunger” (Wang & Holt Gimenez and Shattuck, 2011, pg 3). I feel that this quote is sufficient in concluding this paper, in the sense that by opening up the market to these new alternative means, we are able to address the structural problems on a community level, with profits being used to sustain the local economy, rather than supporting major corporations where problems of inequality and discrimination are not addressed. In conclusion, changes that are under way in the economy which seem to spell certain despair for unemployed and lower income people, are actually creating new places for them to inhabit, in the form of agricultural projects. This has led to the creation of a new social status even after a collapse of the economy in cities like Oakland and Detroit, and shows that subjection of consumers to the current dominant food system can be changed.
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Choo, K. (2011, August 1). Plowing over: Can urban farming save Detroit and other declining cities? Will the law allow it?. ABA Journal, 97, n.a. Retrieved August 1, 2011, from http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/plowing_over_can_urban_farming_save_detroit_and_other_declining_cities_will/
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