A modest plea for Green Stalinism

I think that one weakness in much environmental thought and activism is an over-emphasis on grass roots efforts and consumer choice. Instead, I think we need to look more seriously at ways to force people to do things. For instance, let’s take a simple example: unhealthy food is effectively subsidized, while organic food is expensive. Instead of convincing bourgeois city-dwellers to make the sacrifice and buy organic food, why not reverse the subsidies? Suddenly, you have to sacrifice if you want to enjoy a Big Mac, while the poor are forced by economic necessity to eat food that isn’t actively poisoning them.

The same goes for large-scale industrial farming: why not just outlaw it? Why not limit the size of farms or the number of farming concerns any one person or company can own? Or if neoliberal export-driven farming is the issue: why not outlaw the export of food? If regional self-sufficiency is the goal, mandate it — Congress can regulate interstate commerce, so regulate it in that way.

Maybe it’d be too much of a shock to everyone’s system to do it all at once: okay, come up with a gradual mechanism. Put together a workable program and start agitating. Put together demonstrations: Food justice now! Start up letter-writing campaigns. Flood your congressman with calls. Figure out a way to get this stuff on the Democratic Party platform.

Figure out a way to force people to do the right thing rather than just hoping they do. If our food system is totally fucked and needs to be replaced, then come up with a way to do it other than relying on the consumer choices of concerned liberal middle-class people who, in a few years, will probably get over the organic food fad and be worried about some other cause — just like they got over the issue of sweatshop labor from the Third World, and lo and behold, there are still sweatshop workers in the Third World making our clothes and shoes.

17 thoughts on “A modest plea for Green Stalinism

  1. I agree with you, but I wonder if you don’t misframe the problem a little. What you are describing is a change of force, as you noted: the government subsidizes one thing when it would be better to subsidize something else. And I think you’re right that “consumer choice” just doesn’t do anything useful. But the first step in the direction you’re talking about wouldn’t be outlawing industrial farming, it would be slowing down the extent to which we massively subsidize industrial farms right now. Which isn’t “Green Stalinism” at all, is it? Those monstrosities exist because the state is actively creating the conditions for them to exist at all sorts of policy levels, such that the appropriate thing to do now is a project of undoing their active supports, not legislating away their existence. Green Leninism, maybe; take away their subsidies and industrial farming will wither way?

  2. Stalinism was an intentional exaggeration, meant to highlight the fact that for many people, attempting to mandate anything is so extreme and unimaginable that it might as well be Stalinism. To be fair, the removal of current subsidies is very much in people’s minds (though actually achieving that still seems unachievable to most), and would be wonderful — indeed, it would be a natural fit as part of the “gradual mechanism” that I advocate further down.

  3. I’ve been reading these interesting environmental posts somewhat defensively, but I see more clearly now that you guys are not quite criticizing the sorts of environmental ideas I have been drawn to, even if the terms are similar. Zunguzungu’s interventions have helped me see through that.

    For example, while it is blindingly obvious that “consumer choice” is no way to solve anything so enormous as our collective food problem, my first instinct was to figuratively jump to the defense of “grass roots efforts”. Similarly, the arguments against localism. Well, really, I must not know what localism means to many people. I read it as similar to “re-localization”, the idea that food decisions should be made locally, food should be grown and eaten locally, seasonally appropriate, and so on (along with the analysis that the technological present/future is unsustainable, quite apart from any questions of its authenticity–so, one can, and must, argue for re-localization on the internet with no contradiction). Autonomy, on the one hand, including people living in cities (as I do), and healthier food on the other. Efforts in this direction are necessarily grass roots at the moment because, frankly, the state is not going to outlaw industrial farming.

    But it’s certainly true that grass roots efforts are not likely to have enough of an impact, which I take is your point. Believe me, I’m all for ordering corporations to cease and desist all kinds of harmful activities. I’m all for outlawing corporations altogether for that matter, or at least forcing them to have limited lifespans, and to be unpersoned, among other things.

  4. Sure, the whole movement is likely to be “grass roots” — but a grass roots effort to just try to directly build an alternative food system alongside the industrial system is not going to work, because the deck is stacked in favor of the current system. At worst, those efforts are being supported by a fad among relatively affluent liberals, a fad that will go away eventually. At best, it’s more than a fad and will threaten the status quo — at which point the status quo will stamp it out. The grass roots movement has to have a definable legislative agenda, an agenda that can be implemented at all levels, including local and state levels. I’m all for supporting local or organic agriculture, etc., but we need to support ways to force other people to support it too, ideally by depriving them of the option of industrially-produced food.

  5. I’m all in favour of the both/and of ecological dual power, which seems to be what Adam is saying above.

    Both to endorse at a personal level forms of ethical (yuck at the term) lifestyle choices, while recognising their inherent limitations and agitating seriously, as well as politically in both activist and systematic modes, for reforms of the kind Adam details above.

  6. Since I’ve kind of railed on localism I should say a bit more to show where Richard and I likely agree. First, to me localism and an emphasis on one’s local place in terms of decision making are two different things. Localism is an ideology that I think is counter to a rational-ecological way of thinking. Localism comes with all sorts of baggage, especially in the UK, that connects it to nostalgic movements (and to people like Phillip Blond who say that “it’s not nostalgia if it really was better in the past” we can only say, “Good luck with that.”) and even to certain racist discourses. In short, localism risks merging a kind of Green thinking with politically destructive forms of biopower (racist discourses, xenophobia, hatred of the masses, etc.).

    Now grass roots groups are not, I think we can agree, a good unto themselves. But I agree with you that their struggles and the work many of them have done should be lauded, but it can’t become a self-legitimating ideology or it risks going down the road of most attempts at change. Groups like this need apoptosis or, in more ecological terms, they need to set the prairie on fire. I think part of that, right now, means moving the locus of our discourse to talking about cities and really unpopular things like breaking up factory farms, industrial meat production, and the need to have less children.

    When I think about the sorts of things that need to happen for the long term health of human society and the rest of the world it is hard not to despair, so I understand why people latch onto a kind of weird myth of the small and lifestyle choices. It’s easy to do things like that if you have money, while it seems almost impossible to change the whole of society when our “greenest” President is now opening up off-shore drilling (seriously, wtf?).

  7. Adam, et al:

    I like this because it points out how consumer choice is not so much what makes the food system so horrid, but the structural supports behind it (government subsidy). But I have a serious question: if all food was produced organically, would there be enough food to go around? Are pre-modern farming methods capable of supporting the current world population (I ask this in the non modernity-bashing spirit already present–there are some things to be appreciated about technology when it comes to food production)? I have been told that it is not plausible for the (whole) people to rely only on organic farms alone, because they simply cannot produce nearly as much as those using chemicals, etc, meaning that organic produce can only be a minor affair, only for those who can “afford” it.

  8. There are a number of problems with the way farming is currently practiced a number of things that could be improved upon. The short answer is that we could produce ecologically sustainable food (lets get away from organic as a good in itself, cancer is also organic) and feed the world. It would probably involve people eating less meat (this is where everyone tunes out) and it would be difficult to pull all this off within a capitalist framework.

  9. Thanks for your replies. It does appear that we more or less agree on the major points.

    The short answer to your question, Thomas, I believe is “yes”, though I’m certainly no font of expertise on the matter. Here is an article that appeared in CounterPunch not too long ago on that very topic. I found that link at this Feral Scholar, where they do a lot of blogging about food politics and food praxis (not to mention feminism, militarism, and economics). The conversations there, and related readings, have greatly influenced my perspective on this topic.

  10. “It would probably involve people eating less meat (this is where everyone tunes out)”

    yeah, as they also tune out when it comes down to using less energy, whether personally or at large….

  11. Thomas, I can’t help but wonder if our conceptions of “enough” food are also something that need to be addressed in this discussion. Granted, at the rate that we consume food now, there is no way to currently implement pre-modern farming methods in a way that would provide for the global community. However, we are also completely delusional to think that we need to consume as much as we do – and I’m not merely talking machine-like consumption in the obese US of A. For example, it’s been demonstrated recently that the amount of protein that our bodies need in order to be healthy is actually far less than previously believed. Thus, the amount of meat that needs to be consumed is not nearly as essential to human survival as is often supposed. Perhaps along with this “strong-arm” approach we also need to radically re-educate ourselves about how to live sustainably. It just seems that (assuming we don’t increase the world population to 15 billion) it might be possible to use non-industrial-farming-techniques and still provide enough for the global community.

  12. Thanks for all of the responses, and the links (Richard). I am in tune with the less meat-eating practice–I am not vegetarian, but have intentionally reduced my meat eating for this reason (I know I am not saving the world here, it is more of a symbolic practice for me, and probably means nothing to anyone else). And yes, we need to use less energy.

  13. Not that we are, but we should be very careful not to discount the importance of the steps preceding actually forcing people to do things. In the absence of a non-electoral revolution, people will need to be convinced that they should be forced to do something. To me, this is the only possible value of individualized (& even consumer-based) green issues — as a potential means to a certain political end.

    The key is for such actions to guide people to a sense of disempowerment, though — i.e., to the notion that their/our individual actions don’t mean shit. Ideally, by the time the latter is fully and collectively in place, some modicum of social consciousness will have emerged, and along with it a political culture amenable to such force.

    Which is to say it isn’t inconceivable that there is a certain, small window of opportunity for radical politics afforded by the bourgeois “bleeding-heart”. Whether this is more or less idealistic than a political movement actually having the will to force anything of true value is a different issue.

  14. I think one important thing would be to remove the sense of environmental or ethical food production being a positional good – hence divest it of its class power. I may post on this, I think this is a really good strand we are drawing out here. I’m wondering if there is suitable book APS could suggest that we could all read to get us up to speed on some of the technical ecological stuff here – I for one would be very much down with doing this.

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