Industrial cuisine

Issue 

Gyorgy Scrinis continues a debate

In his response to my article on "Industrial Cuisine", Dave Riley's dismissal of my critique of supermarket culture and the modern diet, and his attack on food cooperatives, show how out of touch he is with some of the key movements for social change today. [The articles appeared in our August 25 and September 1 issues — Editor.]

My article focused on the health and environmental consequences of the modern diet. This included a discussion of how the food processing industry, aided by the scientific approach to health and the body, sells us back highly processed, packaged, and chemically saturated products at greatly inflated prices. I was also critical of our gross over-consumption of meat.

Some of the suggested alternatives were buying unprocessed, raw, organic ingredients from non-profit food cooperatives, and growing and preparing more of the food ourselves. Food cooperatives are obviously also about creating organisational forms based around cooperation and democratic decision-making, as opposed to profit, competition and hierarchy. To suggest in all this that I ignored completely the social relations of food production and preparation is rather narrow-minded. Nor did my article preclude further discussion of such issues.

Riley's gripe, however, is that I didn't talk about the "socio-economic relations of capitalism" in the way he insists we should, which mainly seems to consist of inserting the word "capitalism" into every second sentence. For Riley, virtually anything that happens in today's world is "capitalist", and so there is no possibility of any alternative practices or structures emerging or existing alongside this thing called "capitalism".

Forget alternative ways of eating, obtaining food, preparing food, or more generally alternative ways of living. It's all just "capitalism", and so there's no need to lift a finger till after "the revolution", when it seems everything will suddenly become "socialist". It's analogous to arguing that we should wait till after the death of patriarchy before we start trying to change the nature of contemporary gender relations.

Riley's characterisation of food co-ops, such as those at Friends of the Earth, as a "mere appendage of capitalist commodity relations" and as "another form of commodity production" is a joke, and an insult to the many people who not only have a critique of capitalist and industrial forms, but are busy creating alternatives. Riley says he is terribly concerned about the way production remains "hostage to profit", yet he dismisses the emergence of non-profit oriented food cooperatives. Food cooperatives are a collective response to contemporary conditions, and not an individualist response.

Riley even suggests that buying highly processed and packaged supermarket items like Uncle Toby's Organic Vita-Brits is not only cheaper than buying the raw ingredients from co-ops, but is also "suggestive of the dietary potential this social system has". What a breath-taking analysis!

Forget that these products are refined, packaged and value-added. Forget the plethora of critiques of the food industry, including the environmental critique of packaging. Riley just wants to keep on buying and eating this junk from supermarkets, but he also wants to keep on blaming "capitalism" for giving him no choice. After the four articles he's written so far on the "politics of eating", I'm convinced that he in fact doesn't have a critique of the modern diet or of supermarket culture.

Nor does Riley have any sense of historical change. He can dismiss the health and environmental consequences of the modern over-consumption of meat by uttering the banal observation that humans have always eaten meat, and so that's okay.

I never suggested, as Riley claims, that the shift away from traditional diets was simply one of "choice". There are all sorts of pressures on people today to go for processed, pre-packaged, and pre-cooked meals from the supermarket or as take- away. But it is also absurd to suggest that there are no choices available to us, and that it isn't worthwhile resisting the further commodification of our meals and our health.

Riley is so busy fighting for socialism, it seems, that he hasn't got the time to cook his own beans. In most other people's cases, I'd say it's probably due to spending too much time in front of the TV. To suggest that we spend a bit more time in the kitchen, with the work shared equally between men and women, is for Riley to "force people into spending more of their day in the kitchen". Yes, even more time, and yes, even men!

So Riley's solution is in fact to further extend the industrialisation and commodification of food preparation through "low-cost, publicly owned restaurants". You'll never have to cook your own dinner again, just pay someone else to do it for you. This, then, is to advocate drawing ever more aspects of our lives into the sphere of the market and the exchange of money, rather than being a critique of the commodity-form itself.

Riley has yet to come to terms with what many people on the left realised a long time ago. Instead of just waiting for "the revolution", and as well as engaging in oppositional politics, we need to begin to create our preferred alternatives now, in whatever ways we can.

There are three reasons for this I will mention here. First, because it gives us an opportunity to live differently now, and enriches our lives to that extent. Second, because a great way to convince others of one's alternative visions is to show them at work in practice, even if on a smaller scale. Third, because it is in itself an effective form of resistance to the never-ending growth of the market and commodity relations.

I could go further and suggest that there never will be a "revolution" of the sudden and ejaculatory variety, but rather a much slower and ongoing struggle to create alternative structures and institutions alongside the dominant culture.

In general, Riley's variety of left reductionism suffers from an inability to analyse the variety of structures and social relational forms that exist in the present. Riley only sees this one monolithic thing called "capitalism". It is more useful, however, to be more specific about what we are against (be it the market, high-technology, highly processed foods, wage labour, or whatever), so as to be clearer about what we are struggling for, and then get on with the job of establishing these alternative forms.