From edition

Pollanated Politics, or, The Neoliberal’s Dilemma

chadlavin[at]gmail.com

Abstract:  Michael Pollan has recently emerged as an informal spokesperson for the growing movement for responsible eating.  This essay examines the assumptions underlying Pollan’s recent prescriptions for food reform and demonstrates how these prescriptions remain limited by the political horizon of neoliberalism.  More broadly, the essay situates the recent politicization of food within a consumer society in which it is only as consumers, rather than as workers or as citizens, that Americans can imagine political action.

Keywords: Michael Pollan, neoliberalism, green consumerism, Obama, post-politics

AMONG THE GROWING CROWD OF FOOD PUNDITS active today, Michael Pollan stands as perhaps the most thoughtful and the most visible.  Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) quickly catapulted him to the status of literary celebrity and public intellectual, and today he can frequently be found contributing to The New York Times or having a conversation with popular TV hosts like Terry Gross, Bill Moyers, or Jon Stewart in his role as informal spokesperson for the growing movement for responsible (local, humane, organic, and/or slow) food.  What’s more, Pollan has recently proven himself an astute witness to (and indirect participant in) food capitalism and electoral politics.  After lambasting Whole Foods in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan found himself in an extended debate with John Mackey, the grocery chain’s libertarian CEO and founder, about the practices and values of the chain.  This debate culminated in a public forum at Berkeley University in which Mackey responded to criticisms and presented his case for the social responsibility of business and a humanitarian approach to food and capitalism [1].  Similarly, just before the 2008 presidential election, Pollan published an open letter to the candidates in the New York Times explaining how reforming the American food system could also help deal with the seemingly more pressing issues of climate change, healthcare, and national security.  Soon after, Obama was citing Pollan’s work in a discussion of US energy policy, and bloggers started buzzing about Pollan as a potential Secretary of Agriculture [2].

Pollan’s work has touched a cultural nerve, and this paper explores how and why this is the case.  I argue that Pollan’s work has become persuasive to large numbers of people because his terms and rhetoric effectively capture the dominant understandings and opportunities for political will and action in the early 21st Century.  Specifically, Pollan offers a food politics that resonates with the lived experience of neoliberalism, in which political agency is all but unthinkable except in the terms of consumerism and in which sovereignty is an embattled concept increasingly difficult to apply to the actions of citizens or states.

I.

Pollan’s career as a food writer can be traced back to the two chapters on specific edible plants (apples and potatoes) in his 2001 book The Botany of Desire.  But his transformation into a popular food pundit begins in earnest with a 2002 essay in the New York Times Magazine called “Power Steer” in which he examines the American beef industry by purchasing an infant calf and following it through its life cycle from insemination to feedlot to slaughterhouse.  This essay re-emerged with minor changes as a centerpiece of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a responsible foods reveille in which Pollan meticulously traces the ingredients for different types of meals and makes an appeal for Americans to create a more immediate relationship to their food.

Significantly, whereas the 2002 version of “Power Steer” was an inquiry into the iconic American food (beef) that offered the surprising revelation that the American food system rests entirely on an overproduction of federally subsidized corn, the later version of the essay is recast in light of this conclusion.  When the essay returns in 2006, it is no longer a study of beef but is, instead, just one piece of a larger study of corn.  The book reads as though in writing the magazine article, Pollan learned something that would guide his future investigations.  And in the evolution of this essay one can see what is probably Pollan’s single greatest asset as a journalist: his genuine curiosity that prods him to dig into the issues that perplex or fascinate him, such that a study of meat becomes a study of corn, an inquiry into climate change leads to a study of thermodynamics, and a story on malnourishment becomes an inquiry into the dynamics of federal economic policymaking.  It is probably worth pausing here to note the value of a journalistic profession that enables sustained inquiries without pre-conceived notions about profitable conclusions.  Put more grandly: Pollan’s writing betrays just the sort of curiosity, intellectual engagement, and commitment to publicity that has anchored democratic theory of the past 400 years.  But as admirable as Pollan may be as a journalist and pundit, his work bears the marks of a particular historical moment and reflects a paucity of capacities for political action and imagination under neoliberalism [3].

My guiding assumption is that Pollan’s work has circulated so widely because his claims resonate with some established prejudices of American culture.  Specifically, in focusing his analysis and prescriptions on the political and environmental impacts of consumption, he suggests that it is primarily as consumers (rather than as workers or a citizens) that we act in the world.  This is surely at least in part due to the unique quality of food as the quintessential consumable commodity.  But it is also just as surely due to our move into what Zygmunt Bauman (2007) calls a “consumer society” in which social integration and systemic reproduction is accomplished largely in our roles as consumers instead of as producers.  Books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma examine food as a mode of consumption, but this was not always the case.  Earlier food books like Sidney Mintz’s canonical Sweetness and Power (1985) and Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking The Jungle (1906) explored food as a mode of production looking at plantation and slaughterhouse labor, industrial management, and the caloric needs of workers.  Pollan’s characterization of responsible consumerism as political action is yet another symptom of a consumer society, in which identity formation and social control are largely a function of consumer choices rather than position in a labor hierarchy or workplace management.

One common critique of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that their turn to responsible consumption is elitist; they place hopes for progress in the hands of a wise and benevolent upper-middle-class while delivering more by way of individual self-righteousness than meaningful political change.  Notably, Pollan anticipates this criticism in Dilemma, admitting that responsible food is more expensive and so recommendations that people seek it out are susceptible to the charges of elitism (242-6).  Despite this concession, however, Pollan has very little to say about any alternative means to achieving food system reform.  In explaining the omnivore’s dilemma, Pollan performs the neoliberal’s dilemma: in order to politicize the US food system, he must revert to the obviously inadequate, arguably elitist, and ultimately depoliticizing language of consumerism.  Reading Pollan in the broader context of a consumer society, one gets the impression that food has become such a fashionable political issue precisely because, as the quintessential consumable, it most readily fits into a consumerist politics [4].  If it is largely as consumers that Americans imagine politics, then food is ripe for politicization.

II.

Since 2006, Pollan has both defended and extended the argument put forth in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about creating a more immediate relationship with food.  In 2008, in addition to a bestselling book arguing for a return to more traditional diets (In Defense of Food), Pollan published two high-profile essays in the New York Times Magazine which together offer a sustained statement of his politics of food.  Both essays are clearly responses to the charges that responsible foods movements are elitist, and both endeavor to provide a coherent set of ethical and institutional prescriptions to the problems of the industrial food system.

In the first of these essays, entitled “Why Bother?” (2008a), Pollan admits his suspicions about responsible consumption as he describes his reaction to the closing minutes of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” where viewers are advised to buy energy-efficient appliances and bike to work.  Considering the “immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it,“ Pollan explicitly rejects the consumerist turn in environmental politics, and argues that an effective challenge to climate change would require more than responsible consumer choices and judicious energy calculations.  Specifically, Pollan recommends that we approach the earth as producers rather than consumers, that we stop seeing nature as a bounty of cheap energy to use and instead actively involve ourselves in producing environmental balance.  One way to do this is by “growing some – even just a little – of your own food.”  Pollan argues that backyard gardens will not only reduce our need for fossil fuels by eliminating transportation and limiting the need for petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, they will also change our relationship to the earth.  When people are involved in producing rather than merely consuming food, he argues, they will develop an appreciation for the fragility and interdependence of life, intensifying their ethical bond with the environment.

Pollan’s other 2008 essay, “Farmer in Chief” (2008b), was the aforementioned open letter to Barack Obama and John McCain explaining how the next president could resolve crises in healthcare, energy, climate change, and national security by reworking what is currently a baffling and schizophrenic US food policy.  Pollan offered three broad suggestions in the letter.  First, redesign farm subsidies to reward sustainable growth of “specialty crops” (fruits and vegetables that people actually eat) instead of “commodity crops” (like corn bound for the feedlot or ethanol plant).  Second, decentralize the American food system by promoting farmers’ markets and relaxing USDA regulations that only benefit large agricultural producers.  Third, rebuild a national food culture by teaching children to grow, prepare, and appreciate fresh foods and through symbolic gestures like planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. But this essay is not only a letter to the presidential candidates.  As a public letter explaining the significance of both symbolic and regulatory politics, it is implicitly a rebuke to all those who would read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and come away thinking that responsible consumption is sufficient to fix the food system.  Clearly, this essay was necessitated by the popular impression that the book denigrated state action and placed responsibility for political change in the lap of the consumer [5].

Together, these essays demonstrate Pollan’s belief that building a sustainable food system requires two strategies, a personal/ethical one and a political/institutional one.  While critics of responsible foods movements may be right to claim that the turn to consumerism ignores institutional politics, Pollan is concerned that this critique belittles lifestyle changes and thus releases individuals from responsibility to change their own habits.  For Pollan, talk of the need for political reform often gives license to avoid personal change, just as much as talk of the need for personal change distracts from the need for political reform.  There is a stubborn entitlement that calls upon policymakers to fix the climate crisis even if citizen-consumers have not conveyed their concern for the environment by changing their lifestyles.  Green consumerism may be self-righteous and naïve, but its rejection is cynical and counterproductive.   As Pollan puts this, effective food reform requires that we “commingle [our] identities as consumer and producer and citizen” (2008a).

Pollan proposes that Gore recommends changing your light bulbs “because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food” (2008a).  This seems right.  Gore speaks the language of pragmatism, and offers modest proposals with real possibilities for enactment.  But note: Pollan’s specific gripe with Gore is not that his solutions are consumerist, but that they are individualist; his concern is that, in the face of the world’s most massive ecological problems, Gore remains tied to a limited political imaginary that continues to promote individual-level solutions: “Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge” (2008a).  Echoing the charge against responsible foods, Pollan argues that such individualistic solutions often provide a sense of personal virtue as much as environmental change.  And yet, the alternative that Pollan provides on the very next page is yet another individual level solution: grow some of your own food.

Using Pollan’s own critique, we might posit that Pollan suggests backyard gardening because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, reclassifying food and water as human rights rather than purchasable commodities.  Pollan recommends buying fewer factory-farmed products because he probably can’t imagine abolishing a system of intellectual property that prevents farmers from replanting seeds from season to season, or nationalizing a beef industry that has proven itself unwilling or unable to adhere to even the most basic worker safety and environmental protection regulations.  Even as Pollan laments the paucity of political imagination in the face of an imminent threat to “survival of life on earth as we know it,” he still makes no mention of electoral politics or any other kind of non-individualistic solution.  Caught in the neoliberal’s dilemma, Pollan offers private solutions because he probably can’t even imagine public ones.

Even at his most political, when he is addressing corporate CEOs or elected officials on the institutional remedies to the worlds’ food problems, Pollan’s prescriptions lack the familiar and necessary touchstones of political analysis.  Pollan does address corporate power when he talks about the relative profit margins of fresh and processed foods; he does talk about agricultural subsidies and economies of scale; and he does talk about how federal legislation affects international grain markets and threats of global famine.  But he does not talk about collective action, social antagonism, property rights, or even industrial regulation.  Beyond responsible consumption, his prescriptions are almost invariably a series of commonsense (if recalcitrant) regulatory changes that promote environmental awareness or energy efficiency and that can be cast in the apolitical language of universal consensus.  He offers, in other words, technocratic ethics disguised as a politics, a series of claims that exclude no one:

Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry – the culinary equivalent of home schooling (2008a).

Pollan may be on firm ground claiming that hippies and Christians both like organic produce.  But insofar as “reforming the food system” means interfering with the corporate control of vital resources, it is inherently a right-or-left issue [6].  Insofar as reforming the food system means imposing government regulation on agribusiness and insisting on clean and nutritious food as a human right rather than a purchasable commodity, there are definite political interests and traditionally left-wing ideas in play here.  Insofar as Pollan is talking about food system reform that includes universal coverage for preventative medical care (which he clearly is), it seems disingenuous at best to claim that this is not an agenda that separates a (libertarian leaning) right from a (welfare state) left.  There is, of course, great strategic value to claiming that this agenda “enlists all of us in this great cause” (2008b).  But in order to manage this enlistment, Pollan glides over the fundamental questions of political analysis and thus denies that capitalist society contains competing interests and irresolvable antagonisms.  This retreat from politics is endemic to the neoliberal’s dilemma: how to write politically in an age of near-universal suspicion about state action, popular aversion to political conflict, and widespread belief that disagreement owes to differential access to information rather than to real, irresolvable conflicts over resources and opportunities.  By skipping over such fundamental issues, Pollan offers a politics in which everybody wins.  Which is, of course, no politics at all.  It is, instead, a promise of universal reconciliation beyond the vicissitudes of class (or any other) conflict.

III.

Of course, Pollan’s dilemma is not unique.  His work demonstrates a common horizon of political discourse in the US, where it is only as consumers (not as citizens, and certainly not as workers) that Americans can imagine political action.  Stripped of opportunities for meaningful participation in the workplace or the state, Americans transpose erstwhile political problems to the one place where they can at least imagine being efficacious: the market.  And so, despite all the sound and fury of culture warriors, there is no class struggle in the US; only various identity struggles and consumer boycotts that promise recognition within the uncontested framework of global capital.  American politics, that is, might better be called post-politics.

One sees this same political horizon in the work of another fashionable pundit, Thomas Friedman (2008).  Friedman promises that environmental catastrophe can be averted via federal subsidies for green R&D, and his “green revolution” amounts to market incentives for green technologies like electric cars.  There is no rethinking the reliance on the market to manage scarce resources, nor any more properly political remedies like public transportation, municipal planning to shorten commutes, or reconsidering a regulatory system that allows the selling of fossil fuels to continue to be the most profitable enterprise on earth.  This is, in other words, a neoliberal revolution in which we can combat global warming without interfering with profitability.

But surely the most visible demonstration of the neoliberal dilemma was the Obama campaign’s promises of a post-partisan, post-racial reconciliation that systematically eschewed the democratic ideals of struggle and contestation.  Simon Critchley (2008) voiced a common plaint among leftists that “Obama’s politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy,” meaning that Obama was not just a centrist, Clintonian “New Democrat,” but rather a political candidate who actually promised salvation from all social antagonism [7].  This is a politics consistent with a consumer society, since its guiding assumption is that class conflict can be reconciled within the established framework of a market-based allocation of goods and services.  The label “post-racial,” however, sat clumsily alongside the fact that Obama had recently delivered what may have been the most significant speech on the enduring relevance of race in decades, just as the stamp “post-partisan” seemed bizarre in light of the fact that his first major policy proposal (his economic stimulus package) received the support of 97% of Democrats but only 3 Republicans in Congress.  Slavoj Žižek (2008) noted that though Obama’s campaign was often couched in content-free statements about “hope” and “change,” he had “already [in September 2008] demonstrated an extraordinary ability to change the limits of what one can publicly say” by daring to suggest that race is an undeniable component of politics in the US, that atheists play a positive role in the world, that we ought to engage in negotiations with Iran, and that torture is intolerable.   In other words, Žižek noted Obama’s post-political rhetoric, but identified it as a requirement of the political moment and praised Obama for convincingly speaking this language while also providing political content.  The point, for Žižek, is not whether Obama is post-political or not, but that the language of post-politics is the language that wins elections.

Similarly, my point is not that Pollan is no better than Obama is no better that Friedman.  It is, rather, to note how disparate contributions to political discourse are caught in the same neoliberal dilemma.  When Americans can hardly imagine a politics that is not anchored in consumerism and when the animating prejudice of American discourse is that all problems can be solved without disrupting the market, it becomes increasingly difficult to offer a compelling politics without reverting to the codes of responsible consumption.  Even in when the natural environment and the edifice of global capital stand imperiled by climate change and financial collapse, political discourse is shockingly stunted by the consumerist prejudice; even as global capital stands in a quintessential crisis of overproduction that Marx predicted (where the commodity being overproduced is debt), the political remedies almost invariably involve more consumption.  Put more succinctly: even when the problem is too much debt, the solution is to go shopping.

IV.

By shedding light on the vicissitudes of the commodities markets and championing the power of human reason to overcome scarcity, Pollan’s studies of the industrial food system call attention to various ways in which the allocation of precious goods is or is not governed democratically.  But perhaps the real value of Pollan’s work lies in its demonstration of the limited horizon of the American political imagination, where food cannot be conceived except as a consumable, and where politics cannot be imagined except within the limited restraints of economic neoliberalism.  Even as trends in globalization literature herald the decline of both individual and national sovereignty, the most dynamic movement in American politics today is predicated on a relatively unspoken commitment to the economic principle of “consumer sovereignty” – in which individuals can be held responsible for the market choices they make, and in which discourses of freedom and self control are limited to the ability to buy one’s preferred goods and services.

In the 21st Century, it is primarily with reference to consumption – rather than work or citizenship – that the term “sovereignty” is spoken.  This is the paramount expression of a consumer society, in which social integration is facilitated through consumption rather than production or any kind of collective action.  In this context, food writers speak a language that everybody is ready to hear, they offer the redemptive hope of an end to political struggle, suggesting that even massive redistributions of wealth and challenges to the corporate control of natural resources becomes, fantastically, a politics without losers.

Endnotes

[1] This forum is viewable at  “http://webcast.berkeley.edu/event_details.php?webcastid=19147”. The initial exchange can be read at “http://www2.wholefoodsmarket.com/blogs/jmackey/2006/05/26/an-open-letter-to-michael-pollan”.

[2[ Obama invoked Pollan in an interview with Joe Klein for Time; transcript here: “http://swampland.blogs.time.com/2008/10/23/the_full_obama_interview”).  In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Pollan admitted that one of the campaigns approached him for assistance with their food policy – an invitation that he declined “http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95896389”. Pollan later told Bill Moyers that he would refuse a cabinet position if it were offered “http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11282008/profile2.html”).

[3] By neoliberalism, I mean a political system that subordinates the positive commitments of classical liberalism to the economic rationality of the market.  For a more sustained discussion of this concept, see Harvey (2005).

[4] Note that the books and movies about food by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Peter Singer, Barbara Kingsolver, Barry Glassner, Morgan Spurlock, and Richard Linklater were written and in most cases released before the food contamination scares of 2007 and the global food crisis of 2008.  For a more sustained engagement with these works and their political moment, see Lavin (2009).

[5] Pollan began expressing concern about this interpretation quite soon after his book was released.  In a 2007 lecture, he warns that “voting with our forks can advance reform only so far” and that concerned citizens must “vote with their votes as well” (2007, 139).

[6] At least, inasmuch as these coordinates have some grounding in the history of class politics.  Though again, note how Pollan presents the primary social cleavage in terms of religion and lifestyle rather than race, class, or gender.

[7] Nelson (2008) was writing about the popularity of salvation narratives in presidential politics well before Obama won the Democratic nomination, further testifying to the fact that this is a real historical dilemma rather than any shortcomings among particular political personalities.

Works Cited

Bauman, Z. (2008). Consuming Life. Polity Press.

Critchley, S. (2008). “What’s Left After Obama.” Adbusters (12 November).

Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, Flat, and Crowded. NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Pres.

Lavin, C. (2009). “The Year of Eating Politically,” Theory & Event forthcoming.

Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and Power. NY: Penguin.

Nelson, D. (2008). Bad for Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pollan, M. (2001). The Botany of Desire. NY: Random House.

. (2002). “Power Steer.” New York Times Magazine (31 March).

. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. NY: Penguin.

. (2007). “You Are What You Grow,” in Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed, ed. V. Shiva (South End Press, 2007).

. (2008). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. NY: Penguin.

. (2008a). “Why Bother?” New York Times Magazine (20 April).

. (2008b). “Farmer in Chief.” New York Times Magazine (12 October)

Žižek, S. (2008). “The Audacity of Rhetoric.” In These Times (2 September).

Author Biography: Chad Lavin is assistant professor of Political Science and Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech.  He is the author of The Politics of Responsibility (University of Illinois Press, 2008) and is currently at work on a book about the politics and anxieties of food.

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