December 1, 2012

Is the Triumph of Food Sovereignty Inevitable?


Let’s compare it to Marxism.
1. Marx saw industrialism as part of the normal development of history. (So he implicitly saw the modern level of energy consumption as permanent.) He thought it would naturally and inevitably generate a centralized industrial and finance structure and a physically centralized industrial proletariat. He also saw the evolution of democracy as a linear progress.
2. Marx thought the material conditions of capitalism would automatically generate proletarian consciousness, which would then drive the proletariat to abolish capitalism and establish communism. These developments would basically be stimulus-response. 
3. These ideas, which Marx saw as laws of history/nature, are summed up in the idea of historical materialism.
4. But things didn’t happen as Marx projected. Industrialism and finance physically and organizationally dispersed. I’ve previously made the point that corporatism has in a sense turned the tables of guerrilla warfare tactics. It’s corporate power which seems infinitely agile, concentrating at the enemy’s weak points and dispersing at any concentrated enemy attack. Meanwhile it’s the people, civil society, and democracy which have seemed lumbering, clumsy, off-balance, their own weight a weapon against them.
The industrial proletariat itself was also physically dispersed through globalization.
5. It turned out that the Western proletariat, to the extent it ever did concentrate, was pretty easily co-opted by the corporate system. Instead of naturally and spontaneously developing proletarian consciousness, it was co-opted and infused with petty bourgeois consciousness. The GI Bill, the subsidized car culture and mortgages which fostered suburbia, the “American Dream” and “Ownership Society” propaganda campaigns, all did their work very effectively.
So Marx’s forecast of this particular automatic development of consciousness was disproven. It turns out the proletariat was not automatically going to do that, and was able to be indoctrinated into a different mindset. (This is confirmation of some elements of Lenin’s organizational philosophy.)
6. Meanwhile capitalism itself didn’t develop in the way Marx projected. It never liquidated all feudal vestiges, but conserved most of them (really all but the nominal trappings of monarchy, aristocracy, etc.). It turns out that “pure” capitalism was never going to exist, but rather at most a feudal-capitalist hybrid.
7. This is because history was in fact more materialistic than Marx’s historical materialist idea. Unlike Marx, history always understood that fossil fuels are not infinite, that the modern era of extreme energy consumption is not normal or natural, but rather a unique, ahistorical blip. It understood that modern industrialism is also a unique and ephemeral circumstance. Therefore it understood that pre-oil modes of organization, what we in the West can loosely call “feudal”, were not being abolished but were merely being temporarily modified for the high-energy age. The “bourgeois revolution” was really a kind of scam, and all the commentators like Tocqueville who noted how much was conserved instead of thrown out were recognizing the basic truth of the development.
(In the preceding passage I was using “history” as a metaphor for the truly material, unconscious forces driving the developments. Even at their most insane men can’t act completely against nature, and the finitude of fossil fuels was a constant material fact, even during the glory days of extraction.)
8. It turns out that historical materialism itself, and the predictions Marx derived from it, were part of the “superstructure” and one step removed from the real materialism of energy consumption.
That’s why Marx’s inevitabilities turned out to be contingent at best, and mostly failed to come true. His physical inevitabilities were wrong, and his psychological inevitabilities failed to materialize. It turns out that within the modern framework economic democracy was not fated to develop the way Marx projected. Does this mean the democratic evolution is not linear, but cyclical, and just as it surged with fossil fuels, so it’s fated to subside with them? Or could the development still be linear, with the modern pseudo-democratic co-optation being a temporary obstacle? More on that below.
9. We’re left, first, with the real material inevitabilities. These are the facts of fossil fuel depletion, fossil water depletion, soil exhaustion, and the degradation/depletion of every other natural resource.
10. I’ll focus on industrial agriculture. It’s guaranteed to collapse on account of any of four causes – fossil fuel depletion, fossil water depletion, phosphorus depletion, soil exhaustion. (Which of these will be the proximate cause is a horse race.) It could also collapse even ahead of these because of the climate change it’s causing (industrial agriculture is the #1 greenhouse gas emitter), or the superweeds and/or superbugs it’s generating, mostly via GMOs.
11. Therefore humanity certainly will return to historically normal modes of food production and distribution. Food production will once again be 100% organic, to use the modern term for the traditional. Markets and distribution will once again be predominantly local/regional. These are physically guaranteed.
12. How painful this transformation will be, whether it must mean mass famine, whether we’ll be left at first with woefully denuded soil which will take centuries to rebuild, will be functions of how strong a Food Sovereignty movement we can build prior to and during this collapse, and how forcibly corporatism is able to keep a death grip on power for how long. Corporatism will certainly try to force total devastation upon humanity, since it would rather see humanity starve and die than achieve freedom. It would rather see genocide than relinquish power. It’s too early to know if the forces of evil will be able to hang on once they start to weaken, or whether they’ll collapse quickly in spite of their malevolent will. But there’s no doubt that the stronger humanity’s own organization against this curse and toward its own future, the better a chance we’ll have of averting the worst. But all these things seem to be open questions.
13. As for the consciousness of democracy and freedom in themselves, we’ve certainly assimilated the ideas as completely as a species can. This goes with modern agroecological knowledge as one of the two great heritages of modernity we can take with us beyond it, if we choose.
14. What does it mean to say humanity “can choose” something? It’s natural for a species to seek its own aggregate survival, under the best conditions possible. We don’t usually say a non-human species “chooses” to seek to survive and triumph. Is there any reason to think homo sapiens is different?
15. If not, and if it’s true that our best chance to continue to eat going forward is to organize toward that goal, does this mean that affirmative imperatives like Food Sovereignty (and negative ones like the total abolition of GMOs) are not just political but biological imperatives? And if this is true, does that mean that the triumph of Food Sovereignty is inevitable?



  1. Russ said: 14. What does it mean to say humanity “can choose” something? It’s natural for a species to seek its own aggregate survival, under the best conditions possible. We don’t usually say a non-human species “chooses” to seek to survive and triumph. Is there any reason to think homo sapiens is different?

    It’s the old Kantian antinomy between freedom and nature, no? I have come to embrace Kant’s belief that the two could mutually coexist, and reject the later philosophies that demand that freedom be absolute: the infinite will of the absolute I. It seems like that for an individual to be absolutely free, he or she must either enslave others or enslave nature, or both.

    I must admit though, that of all the philosophies in whch freedom is deemed absolute—–Ficteanism, Marxism, free market fundamentalsm (aka neoliberalism, globalism, liberal internationalism), Nietzscheanism, anarchism—-that I find anarchism the most attractive.

    Are you aware of the films being made by the Canadian anarchist, Scott Noble? Great stuff. I highly recommend his latest effort:

    “The Power Principle: Corporate Empire and the Rise of the National Security State”

    I may be skeptical of the solutions offered by Marxists and anarchists, but their critiques of the existing system are superb, and almost solitary since Christianity seems to have been rendered about as worthless as the teats on a bore hog in that regard.

    Comment by Glenn Stehle — December 5, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    • I agree that freedom in the broadest sense is more of a functional aspiration than some absolute, although we may demand the absolute in some contexts. (Thus, for example, I absolutely reject the right of corporations to exist, and therefore reject all their “rights”, prerogatives, etc., and refuse to live passively in the same world where they exist and infringe on my freedom, postitive or negative, one iota.)

      So it is indeed tiresome where philosophers and hacks set up “freedom” and “nature” as absolutes and then agonize over this phony either/or. (Although Nietzsche did the opposite, denying all such stark dichotomies.)

      Freedom is a part of nature, and is in one sense the measure of how much we can take action, both in terms of the avenues truly open to us (positive freedom) and external restraints upon us (negative freedom). In the inner sense it’s really the same thing, the way our psyches work to give us more opportunities or less (for example in how flexible we are, how emotionally resilient, how open to new ideas) and help or hinder our following through (our discipline, fortitude, tactical creativity).

      There’s really no need to multiply entities by positing “freedom” as some metaphysical thing, as opposed to a convenient term for a complex of natural psychological and/or political/socioeconomic phenomena. Of course it’s also a potent rhetorical figure, where galvanizing the spirit relative to those political and economic restraints upon and liberations of our wills and actions, i.e. of our freedom.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’m not familiar with Noble, but I’ll check him out.

      Comment by Russ — December 5, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  2. Russ,

    Quick question I had discussing this with somebody. How is the following implicit in his view of history?

    1. Marx saw industrialism as part of the normal development of history. (So he implicitly saw the modern level of energy consumption as permanent.) He thought it would naturally and inevitably generate a centralized industrial and finance structure and a physically centralized industrial proletariat. He also saw the evolution of democracy as a linear progress.

    Comment by Tron — March 29, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

    • You mean the level of energy consumption? If one thinks mass industrialization is a permanent mode of activity, as Marx evidently did, then he has to think that level of energy consumption is permanent. How can you have industrialism without the energy to fuel it? The alternative is that the modern era was a one-off ahistorical blip afforded by fossil fuels.

      Comment by Russ — March 30, 2013 @ 5:40 am

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