From edition

Max Haiven, Food, finance, crisis, catalyst: global capitalism and the revolutionary value of food sovereignty

I. The problem, once again…

At risk of being obviously unfashionable or unfashonably obvious, the problem with food in the world today is capitalism. Particularly, it is a form of capitalism that imposes uniquely local but ubiquitously global forms of market sovereignty over more and more aspects of our lives. Food, which names the spectre of one of the great crises of the 21st century, offers a particularly acute nexus of the power of and struggle against this omnicidal sovereignty. After all, everyone eats (or is prevented form eating) and the thematic of food stretches from our most basic ontological and epistemological categories (nature/culture, raw/cooked, wild/civilized, internal/external, tradition/science) to the infinitely complex and bitterly material relations of power in a globalizing world. Food speaks to the way emerging forms of global power influence all levels of life, from the genetic makeup of seeds to the ownership of land. From the gendered dynamics of agricultural labour to the persistence of neocolonial monoculture and cash-crop cultivation. From the infuriating inequalities of global trade to the tension between transnational corporation, international organizations, the transforming nation-state, and global and local social movements. From the homogenized foodscapes of urban Wal-Mart Supercentres (where Americans buy the single greatest proportion of their food) to the cultural and body politics of (over/under)eating (fast and slow). We encounter all of these and everything in between through the prism of questions of resistance, as unavoidable as they are inexorable: collectivist or individualist? Localist or globalist? Reformist or revolutionary? Utopian or apocalyptic?

For to speak about food is to always already speak about the future ((See Szeman 2007 on globalization and futurity.)); today it is to speak about the future in the shadow of its global foreclosure. As Frederick Jameson (2003) notes, as capitalism of a particularly neoliberal variety saturates our weary planet, when (it believes) all its historic enemies have been vanquished and all its territorial frontiers mapped, at the proverbial “end of history,” we begin to witness the “end of temporality:” the reduction of human social time to the unremitting now of free-market expansion where all alternative futures are already rendered impossible by cultural and material constraint. For Jameson, as well as critics like Henry Giroux (2004), this arrest of time within a bankrupt neoliberal utopianism is not just a matter of macroeconomic policy but a lived and everyday politics, something that is experienced, felt and culturally practiced. From the reticulation of the world in networks of national, personal and micro-credit debt to the intensification of localized forms of patriarchal oppression under intensified conditions of social and structural violence to the politics of food which are the subject of this issue, the emerging forms of global market sovereignty make political the rhythms of everyday life as never before ((Co-editor Scott Stoneman and I have explored this thematic more thoroughly in our treatment of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, as a “panopticon of time” (forthcoming (2009) in the McMaster Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition Working Paper Series). The recognition of the interconnectedness of global political economy, everyday life and food has long been a theme in feminist scholarship and activism – see Mies 1986)).

This special issue is about just this mutation of sovereignty, as well as the demands for another, very different form of food sovereignty that would contest it. The contributions, each in their own unique way, take up the question of power and resistance in a moment confusing in its complexity, terrifying in its dangers, and electrifying in its potentials. By and large, they tend to approach this new form of sovereignty as neoliberalism, a term now familiar the world over as the economic ideology (and political, social and cultural theology) of free-market supremacy (See Harvey 2005).

But, as leading food critic Julie Guthman points out in the interview she provides for this issue, neoliberalism is never universally applied. Like Aihwa Ong (2006), who speaks of neoliberalism as a mobile and mutable set of technologies of governmentality [3], Guthman insists we look to its local implementations if we wish to be precise in understanding our adversary. Yet that which ties these diverse global iterations of neoliberalism together is not merely their ideological commitment to free-markets, deregulation, privatization and the bolstering of the repressive arm of state at the expense of the welfare arm (see Bourdieu 1999). While the ideology is important, the actual mechanics of how neoliberalism (and the form of capitalist sovereignty it champions) is globally coordinated is equally crucial for us to grasp, especially at a moment when the future of neoliberalism is by no means certain (though rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated). And this mechanics goes by the name so familiar to us now as another of those great crises of the 21st century: finance. And like the crisis of food, the crisis of finance is fundamentally a crisis of the future.

II. The peril of finance

As political economist Michael Perelman points out in his interview in this issue, the financial crisis that now throttles the world cannot be separated from the latest flare-up (at least in the global Northern imagination) of a food crisis which both he and feminist philosopher and historian Sylvia Federici (also interviewed in this issue) note is endemic to capitalism and its necessary corollary, (neo-)colonialism. Capitalism’s history is haunted by genocidal famines caused by the violent severing of indigenous peoples and peasants from their land (and the extinction or appropriation of their accumulated agrarian and ecological wisdom) in order to create plantations and displaced (thus vulnerable) workforces (Davis 2001). This is a process which, as Federici points out here as elsewhere (2005) relied (and relies), in both centre and periphery, on the systematic destruction of women’s social power and knowledge and the production of racial divisions (see also the work of Vandana Shiva).

For Perelman, the current crisis in food is partly a result of the havoc created as the trillions of dollars fictitious wealth, generated ex nihilo by increasingly complex financial instruments at the highest (elite, white, northern, urban) echelons of the increasingly integrated and borderless global market, rush in and out of national economies and speculative investment in food “commodities.” These tumultuous torrents of digital wealth introduce an unprecedented volatility in the local and global price, affecting consumers and producers and undermining the state’s ability to regulate either finance or food. The final effect is, almost everywhere, the ongoing enclosure of the commons, a process stretching back to the earliest days of capitalism and colonialism. Historically, it refers to the way hereditary land tenure and communal land ownership was violently stripped and common lands and resources where brought under private ownership (usually to be transformed into profit-generating enterprises focused on creating commodities for long-distance trade). More conceptually, enclosure refers to the way all those shared aspects of our lives, those relatively organic values of human collectiveness (like food, from growing to sharing/trading to eating) are rent asunder and replaced or overcoded by the hegemonic measure of money (DeAngelis 2007). Nothing speaks more nauseatingly to the exploitation inherent to the overvaluation of monetary (capitalist) wealth at the expense of what almost every person on earth would classify as “real” social wealth than the image of (mostly brown) farmers starving while harvesting luxuries like coffee or bananas as (mostly white) hedge-fund and bank managers dine on cosmopolitan exotica after a day of hallucinating digital dollars

Finance is a hegemonic sphere of human action of superhuman complexity, a chaotic network of frenzied cyborgian human-computer relations that even its most prodigious acolytes do not fully understand, especially in its sociological implications (LiPuma and Lee 2004). It is, however important to attempt a rudimentary sketch how finance works, beginning with its origins, in relation to food and sovereignty.

Finance is money to the power of money, a compounding and intensification of the abstraction of social value already at work in money in a capitalist society (see Nelson 1999). All money is, at base, a claim upon the future (specifically, future labour) and it has its roots in food. The earliest currencies issued represented claims against the coming year’s harvest, underwritten by the authority of the state, which allowed farmers to purchase necessary materials in advance (Ferguson 2008). Since its earliest anthropological origins money has always had a crucial relationship to both food and sovereignty – indeed, it may even be the case that, in many non-capitalist economies, money’s primary purpose is precisely to mediate food and sovereignty. Even through to the birth of industrial capitalism in the 19th century currencies were often tied, de jure or de facto, to the price of staple agricultural commodities (grains, salt, etc.), mediated or controlled by central state authorities. As Karl Polanyi (1944) (among others) notes, the commodification of food (and the policies which sought to defend society from this commodification) was a crucial struggle in he transition to capitalism [4]. It is this subordination of the deep and rich value of food (in the broad sense of social and cultural values as well as the narrow sense of its economic worth) to the cyclopean value of money-the way all those aspects of the socioculture which surround food become increasingly commodified-that characterizes the differential implementations of food neoliberalism around the world and connects them through a global web of unfettered digitized financial transactions.

Finance refers generically to the way money in a capitalist society is mobilized and, in particular, to the way money flows in and out of forms of investment. These forms include the more familiar stocks and shares in corporations and government bonds but increasingly produces huge amounts of value from the FIRE sector: finance (in this limited sense, speculative investment), insurance and real estate (Henwood 1998). Trade in commodity (a financial category which tellingly encapsulates all “gifts” from the earth from crude oil to timber to food) “futures,” the politics of agricultural debt and financing, and the speculative nature of land ownership and rent are too complex to parse here, but all hint at the deep imbrications of finance in the global food chain. It is, however, necessary to point out that finance always and everywhere relies on the modern nation-state (and, some would argue, vice-versa) to offer a modicum of necessary “external” regulation to a system that is fatally volatile and to repress or provide life-support to various populations whose labour is at the heart of the social wealth upon which finance builds its magnificent les in the sky (see Harvey 2006).

Finance, is, as David Harvey (2006) puts it, capitalism’s “central nervous system,” the way an otherwise self-contradictory machine of reckless accumulation “thinks” or reflects on all those processes of exploitation under its sovereignty and contrives its own spread. Beyond simply (through crucially) redistributing surplus value across an integrated capitalist economy the system of financial circulation enables “market signals” (price fluctuations, profit margins, labour costs, indications of militancy, political stability, etc.) from nerve endings across capitalism’s global body feed into this monstrous brain and trigger global financial markets to discipline wayward economic nodes. For instance, should a nation-state actually heed the demands of its people and, say, guarantee food sovereignty, it could expect a brutal flight of increasingly mobile capital, the extreme and nearly immediate devaluation of national currency, the fire-sale of government bonds, and an inability to access the transnational credit upon which countries from North to South now depend. Similarly, the spread of biotechnology cannot be separated from the power of finance in the shares (and derivative securities) of biotech firms like Monsanto, its hold on research and development and the increasingly privatized university sector, the circuit of international debt and currency speculation which weaken country’s regulatory ability, force them to advance land privatization schemes, and encourage them to adopt biotech schemes in an effort to appear economically “modern” and worthy of credit. The recent global debacle created when speculative capital rushed out of financialized debt and into bio-fuel producing grains (leading to prohibitively expensive food prices in many underdeveloped zones) is a good indication of how finance ties together seemingly unconnected areas of a world saturated with capitalist value in an evolving web of exploitation and volatility.

The way in which financialized neoliberalism creates this global network of disciplinary technologies has been referred to by Massimo DeAngelis (2007) as a global “fractal panopticon” within which, like in its Foucauldian precursor, subjects (which in this case range form international NGOs to state bureaucracies to civil society to individuals) come to complete in disciplining themselves and conforming to the normative desires of transnational capital. This panoptic power, as readers of Foucault (1977, 1978, ) will know, is not merely punitive but also encourages a financial “care of the self.” In the fractal panopticon, subjects as large as nation states and as small as individual people are encouraged to develop a properly neoliberal subjectivity, largely based, as Randy Martin (2007) points out, on the astute management of that great privatization and instrumentalization of social problems: “risk.”

Crucially, this is accomplished not merely by the global flow of commodities, government bonds, and the stocks and shares of transnational corporations but by the redoubling of the abstraction of social wealth these things are already supposed to represent – namely, the trade in futures and other “derivatives:” bets on the future rise and fall of the prices of these underlying securities (rather than purchasing those securities outright). At the brink of the recent financial meltdown, the global trade in (over-the-counter) derivatives was (conservatively) estimated at over $683.7-trillion, roughly 11 times the gross-domestic product of the entire planet [5]. The now infamous “credit-default swap” and “mortgage-backed security” are only the tip of an iceberg of financial wizardry where the actual human, material relations on which the global economy is based (like food) disappear into commodities then disappeat again into financial indicators, then disappear yet again into speculation, and so on.

We are, however, remiss to relegate this accumulation of “fictitious value” to the realm of pure fantasy: like all stories it has real, and in this case deadly, social power (King 2003). The over-production of financial wealth, though it produces massive global volatility whose fallout we are only today beginning to feel, is crucial to the way global capital everywhere forecloses on the future, always already overshadowing the lived experience of futurity. This is perhaps most clearly seen and affectively felt through the constraints on life imposed by debt (from state bonds to mortgages to microcredit schemes) but is also a function of the way financial logic of risk management “hedges” against any unforeseen eventuality (except all-out system failure – see LiPuma and Lee 2004) and eliminates or subordinates those spheres of autonomy and solidarity that could be the seeds of a different tomorrow.

This new form of power, one geared towards a control over not only the present but the future as well, represents, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000 and 2004) argue, an emerging form of global sovereignty, one that is as expansively global as it is intensively local. It is a sovereignty which seeks a form of control that is not territorial but biopolitical in the sense that is seeks less to create stable borders (rather, it creates multiple borders between and within the jurisdiction of the nation-states whose own sovereignty, as we have seen above, is typically subordinated to that of transnational capital – see also Balibar 2004) and more to intervene in all aspects of our lives, submitting them to a logic of commodification and neoliberal restructuring. It is a system which runs on war and inequality and the terrifying unfairness of it all, one which requires next to no justification because of its success in exercising power through the apparently anonymous and unaccountable technologies of finance (LiPuma and Lee 2004) and because it is neither a conspiracy nor a ruling class (though it does involve both). Rather, it is a hyper-contagious viral logic (McMurtry 1999) which answers only and always to its pathological (and, as we are now coming to realize, ecologically omnicidal) imperative to spread deeper and wider, to every corner of the globe and into every crevice of our being, down to the very elemental bios of our existence.

III. The promise of food sovereignty

The delineation of concepts above provides only a rough and insufficient sketch of the complexity of the matter. But it does serve to situate claims to food sovereignty within a broader paradigm of capitalist sovereignty, one that goes beyond a more surface reading of “neoliberalism” and which gestures towards the latter’s place within capitalist development both structurally and historically. Food today is a key example and component of this system and, as the articles and interviews in this volume attest, a key site of struggle at the junctures of the global and the local, the personal and the political, the individual and the collective, the autonomous and the determined, the past, the present and the future.

It is for this reason that the activism around food sovereignty is so crucially important. As both Federci and Raj Patel (in this issue) point out, claims to food sovereignty [6] do not simply rehearse older notions of the sovereignty of the nation-state, nor do they reflect xenophobic or exclusively local struggles. Instead, sovereignty here refers to demands for autonomy, solidarity, dignity and the fundamental rights of people and their communities to decide the future of the food they grow and consume as a form of material democracy. As Bethany Turner notes in her analysis of the contemporary Maize movements in Mexico in this issue, food sovereignty is not an anachronistic retreat to pre-global authenticity but reflects, both in theory and practice, a globalization from below which mobilizes new communication technologies to build a network of global solidarity strong enough to support both broad-based coalitions as well as lay the transversal foundations of another form of food interconnectedness not based on the vicissitudes of the free market. Such internationalism reflects the promise of a critical cosmopolitanism of overlapping, “territorialized” or “balkanized” jurisdictions of food responsibility hinted at by Patel (this issue) and in Emily Johansen’s reading (also this issue) of two recent novels on food politics. Also in this issue, Kelly Bronson’s photo essay speaks to the similar dreams of farmers and activists in Canada’s bread-basket province of Saskatchewan resisting the corporate biotechnological colonization of (the potential for) independent and sustainable farming practices.

Yet as other contributors point out, the politics of food sovereignty are about not only the collective struggles of those we typically understand to be food producers, but also the common resistance of food consumers and the individual, subjective aspects of this process. For Karine Vigneault, local food movements in the North develop new global modes of responsibility based on their unique and evolving relationship to the past, present and future of geographic terroirs or nature-cultures within which they cultivate and from which they draw their sustenance, a theme echoed by Mike Mikulak’s thoughts on the political, ecological and social importance of backyard gardening and heritage seeds.

As tantalizing as the promise of local food initiatives are, however, Gwendolyn Blue points out that the saturation of neoliberal governmentality in North American culture and society leaves no practice, no matter how radical, untouched by its ideology of individualism and consumerism and its hostility to collective projects outside a commodified frame, a conclusion echoed by Chad Lavin’s piercing critique of best-selling food-politics super-hero Michael Pollan. To this we can add the forms of economic and racial privilege which have so far characterized many local food movements in the North, as well as the way their champions elide the reality that, as Sylvia Federici points out (in this issue), poor people the world over, especially women, have been engaging in small scale personal and community gardens since time immemorial, an abject material basis on which all other forms of economics and exploitation rest.

Yet Blue continues that local food movements are not merely reproductive of global capitalist sovereignty. Rather, they represent always already incomplete and unsatisfactory attempts to contest this power at the level of life itself. This biopolitical imperative, as Mikulak notes, is inherent to the politics of food. After all, food is among the few elemental substances of human life on which all other social, cultural and political structures must rely, recalling Bertolt Brechts famous dictum “first bread, then ethics,” reminding us that, as Georgio Agamben (1998) suggests, beneath all forms of modern sovereignty, even (and perhaps especially) the sovereignty of global financial neoliberal capitalism, lies the hauntingly emaciated figure of “bare life” or the animal-existence of human beings to which the most precarious, exploited and disenfranchised subjects of our global (dis)order are increasingly and horrifically reduced [7].

Against this omnicidal hegemony of capitalist value, against the subordination of all value to money under the discipline of finance, food sovereignty echoes a demand to reground value in the negotiation of human needs through democratic and autonomous community organizing. As Patel suggests (in this issue, as well as in Patel, Balakrishnan and Narayan 2007), food sovereignty calls for a “right” to food which is not merely a privilege to be granted (and withdrawn) by a nation-state but a demand for another world in which rights are the product of a complex, evolving, immanent solidarity. The abstract question of a world beyond all “top-down” sovereignty is pointless; food sovereignty “from below” and the utopian rights it demands are not mere fantasy but practices which articulate a shared horizon of social movements the world over. They are a common scream against hunger and exploitation, a way for our movements to find each other in the dark and “ask questions as we walk” [8]. Though our strategies may range from planting backyard gardens to taking state power to coordinating local food coops to enforcing international law to serving free food in urban cores to fighting the racism and sexism on which the system thrives, food sovereignty can animate our shared imagination based on the value of food not as a commodity, but as a social process and our elemental ontological commons.

Such an imagination has the potential to shatter the illusory value of capital and the ideology of neoliberalism which overvalue the luxury and idleness of the few at the expense of the starving, indebted and overburdened many. Food sovereignty can move us beyond more abstract notions of “multitudes” by grounding our conceptualization of global interdependence and the promise of democracy in the lived material practices of breaking bread. It can enrich our analysis of class, race, gender, colonialism and globalization by insisting that food politics is about more than personal consumer choice, that it is a matter of bringing to birth new forms of political power. It also moves us beyond the facile politics of apocalyptic primitivism with its perverse and racist fantasies of population collapse and recreational biopolitics. Though it is open, as all things are, to cooptation, it is the responsibility of scholars and activists alike to probe the limits of the concepts and practices of food sovereignty with an eye enabling them to speak to one another and chart the considerable challenges we all face.


[1] See Szeman 2007 on globalization and futurity.

[2] Co-editor Scott Stoneman and I have explored this thematic more thoroughly in our treatment of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, as a “panopticon of time” (forthcoming (2009) in the McMaster Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition Working Paper Series). The recognition of the interconnectedness of global political economy, everyday life and food has long been a theme in feminist scholarship and activism – see Mies 1986

[3] For an elaboration of governmentality see Gwendolyn Blue’s contribution to this issue.

[4] This was, for instance, a main ideological contention between economic defenders of the ancient regime in France (notably, the physiocrats whose name derives from their insistence that land and its ability to grow food – under proper aristocratic management – is the source of all value) and the bourgeois revolutionaries who, in dialogue with emerging economic thinkers like Adam Smith, based a whole system of property, law, philosophy, morality, and, arguably, scientific epistemology on the elemental value of (nominally) free labour (typically someone else’s) and the productive power of monetary exchange. Such a devaluation of food and land and the subordination of inherited title and feudal rank to the universal power of money, not coincidentally, allowed for the intensification of the enclosure of peasant lands and the development of urban workforces (and the emergence of new forms of labour and population discipline) so crucial to the birth of capitalism. See Federici 2004 and Perelman 2000.

[5] Statistics on derivatives are notoriously unreliable given that they are both poorly regulated and extremely ephemeral. These come from a 2008 report from the Bank of International Settlements (retrieved March 22, 2009 from Global GDP figures are from the International monetary Fund’s 2008 World Economic Outlook (retrieved March 22, 2009 from

[6] The notion of food sovereignty is articulated differently in different venues but is widely influenced by the statements over the past 10 years by Via Campasina (Peasant Path/Way/Life), the movement of peasants, indigenous people and their allies around the world. See

[7] Yet the history of food politics reveals Agamben’s eurocentrism: where he takes the Nazi Holocaust to be the signature moment of modern biopolitics and the stark horror of bare life, the horrific conditions of (neo-)colonialism and the famines it created do far more to teach us about the nature of modern sovereignty – see, for instance, Mbembe 2004. Indeed, such a historical approach also lead us away from the unrealistic total evacuation of agency and complete social death on which Agamben’s theory rests. Similarly, Federici (2004) has made clear that the origins of biopolitics are intimately tied to the tangled growth of modern capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism, key elements of which included the witch-trials of the 16th-17th centuries and the truck between the centre and periphery of technologies of bodily and population-oriented discipline and social dispossession.

[8] This language derives from John Holloway’s (2005) meditations on the wisdom of the Zapatista movement of the indigenous Maya of Chiapas (Mexico).

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