“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat… that is imperialism”. For the Marxist revolutionary Thomas Sankara, the purpose of making proclamations such as these was to draw attention to the common plight suffered by those living under the yoke of French rule. Sankara had become all too aware of the fact that years of occupation had so warped the daily perception of those subjected to colonial rule that in order to make visible that which had long been obscured, empire had now become a common feature of their daily lives. In his home country, Burkina Faso, even the food was bound up by those same imperial forces and by consuming it, it was now becoming a part of their physiology in an almost grotesque manner. Today what is taken for granted as the standard means of pursuing our daily nourishment has largely been shaped by those same forces. Modern dietary habits are also a product of imperialism.
Imperialism is a system of economic expansionism, control, and domination with a history of rule that has shaped not only the political environment we inhabit but also how we perceive our place within it. Characterised by a distribution of power that is either direct and “visible”, or functioning as a subtle political process of change which then cements itself over time. Common examples of imperialism usually refer to a previous age and conjured up is the former murderous plunder that ravaged Africa, Asia and the Americas. When the word imperialism is evoked, it seems strange to equivocate the term with a contemporary form of food production and this is what makes modern imperialism so effective. That is its ability to remain invisible or to go undetected. For the modern superpowers, and in the era of Pax Americana, this is largely how they operate, by using less direct methods in order to advance their nation’s particular geopolitical interests and to disguise these actions by using modern political or economic jargon such as “development”, “liberalisation” or “investment”. Take the United States, for example, which has morphed itself into the imperial power par excellence. The US has a plethora of government agencies, NGOs, forums, think tanks and financial institutions all of which are designed to legitimise what is at its core very much a part of that same process. To dominate and control entire regions and as a consequence what, how and if they eat. Imperialism now comes dressed in a humanitarian garb.
In the modern era we have institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), WTO (World Trade Organisation), World Bank and USAID (United States Agency for International Development) whose goal it is to further or implement what former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz calls the “Washington consensus”, a ten-point programme originally written by John Williamson, a former adviser to the IMF. There has never been a superpower in history like the United States which can rival or has blended nearly every aspect of its society in concocting an imperialist military culture and the promulgation of patriotic values, which in some groups can reach rather frothy levels when their beloved nation appears to be under attack. In the post-colonial era and following on from the liberation movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the former bastions of empire had a hard time trying to justify their own genocidal occupations while they had spent a great deal of effort (and lives) combatting the evil Nazi war-machine. What was once the pride of a nation became a source of collective shame as colonial peoples continued to assert their rights to freedom and self-determination as advanced in Lenin’s 1914 thesis.
The struggles waged by oppressed people all over the world marked a new period in historical development with the fascist beast having been slain. Empires quickly went out of style, or so we are told. Empire took to the shadows and had to rely on a more sophisticated set of tools as perfected by the British in order to maintain hegemonic rule. Globalisation replaced intervention and the structural adjustment programs granted those same institutions the right to penetrate the economies of nations all over the world. Concepts like national sovereignty were forced to modify themselves as multinationals came knocking at our doors. Dreams of independence were quickly vanquished as the old powers quickly resumed their roles as the new players operating on the world stage having orchestrated a new form of warfare facilitated through the mechanism of the markets with the old strategies of outright invasion having been supplanted (exceptions are of course still made). In these instances, food policy and international finance became mightier than the sword. As certain states inherited the task of controlling the global food supply, the war over full bellies has led to aggressive political strategies being pursued by the US and its allies.
The way food production and distribution is organised on an international scale is a marvel when it is considered how far humanity has come with the threat of war, famine and all manner of disasters ready to thwart our efforts. But with all the advances in technology and with the advent of globalism surely “great is our sin” that food insecurity still persists and is due to worsen as projected by leading environmental authorities. So, with nearly half of all food produce dumped every year neoliberal capitalism is the real barrier to overcoming the inability to eradicate hunger. Presenting food insecurity as a humanitarian crisis rather than a political issue, western governments hide behind vacuous rhetoric soaked in moral platitudes and are clearly unwilling and uninterested in staging a showdown with the giants of the food industry. Subtle racist undertones are also used to produce an image of poor nations as simply unable to exist and function without western aid. With the global food supply being held ransom by those same multinational corporations who mostly reside in the western states, access to food still remains a deeply contested issue.
The United Nations is one out of many locations where states argue over our perceptions of food. What has become clear are the issues which still remain areas of dispute. In his book, Rogue State, William Blum sheds light on the US record when it comes to promoting basic human rights. From the 1970s the US has continually shot down attempt after attempt to help the developing world. In 1982, for example, proper nourishment as a human right was voted against by the US which was also repeated in 1983. In 1984 the industrial development decade for Africa was voted against and in 1985 international cooperation in areas such as trade development and resource flow were also voted against. In 1986 the right to development was voted down by the US and in that same year the rights of migrant workers were also deemed unimportant and received no US support. The list goes on and on. Blum also points to the fact that in 1996 after the right to food had disappeared as a resolution to vote on as a human right for 13 years “the US took issue” with an affirmation at a World Food Summit. That being, “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food”. The point of contention being that the US didn’t recognise a “right to food”. Outside of the UN the foundations of food policy are consistently being remade and adjusted with western interests in mind. An example which perfectly highlights the blending of both corporate interests and trade institutions is the incident where the food giant Cargill which, supposedly after writing and negotiating the US government’s position on agriculture had those same terms adopted by the WTO as its agreement on agriculture. As Mark Curtis accurately points out in Web of Deceit, “free trade…really means corporate control”.
The politics of food are inherently violent. Beyond the mouths to feed, the large sea voyages involved in transportation and the processes which produce our favourite articles lie class interests and power. Simple items like the banana and coffee have corporate players engaged in a conflict so that it’s their product on your kitchen table and much like the colonial wars of old it is overwhelmingly people from the global south and the working classes who continue to suffer. Even with all the assurances fair trade offers to consumers, John Smith points to the stark imbalances that exist between the states that encompass the global coffee trade. Elaborated on in an article Imperialism in a cup of coffee is how farmers from Africa and South America are continually exploited. Smith notes that with “a £2.50 cup of coffee purchased from one of the chains. Just 1p goes to the farmer who cultivated and harvested the coffee”. So as western states mark up their prices the additional wealth generated “magically reappears in the gross ‘domestic’ product of the countries where the products of their labour are consumed” and stays within those borders. So those same exploited countries remain in a state of maldevelopment as along with their inability to realise the value of their labour they are unable to even roast the coffee beans that have been grown. As a consequence, they are forced to perform types of labour which ensure their countries stay impoverished and deindustrialized. If coffee beans are roasted, they will be subject to heavy import tariffs which also becomes a deterrent by itself. As up to 40 billion dollars is estimated to leave Africa a year, Walter Rodney’s masterpiece How Europe Underdeveloped Africa remains relevant as underdevelopment was something done to the continent over several centuries; it does not take poverty to be the continent’s natural state.
A political history of food sheds light on the violent lineage which can be traced back to the first voyages made by conquistadors who set off to explore the new world. What are companies like Nestle and Coke if not the inheritors of that same legacy of slavery and subjugation which include the former monoliths like United Fruit Company? The term “banana republic” coined by the writer O. Henry has its origins in US imperial exploits in South and Central America as countries like Honduras and Guatemala continually had their rights eroded. Being forced to produce one set of crops for US import under the threat of military violence. This focus on producing the banana, for example, led to it being enjoyed in the US as it became a part of the empire’s national diet. Peter Linebaugh documents a similar development in The London Hanged which took place as the British dominated over the slave trade. As cheap sugar flowed in, British consumption “rose from 4lbs. a year in 1700 to 18lbs. a year in 1800” and “sucrose…‘the favoured child of capitalism’, became a staple ingredient in the factory and workhouse”. With the world continually being carved up by the great powers any attempt to revolt was crushed. Under the guise of anti-communism any threat to US economic dominance is always characterized as a method of stopping political subversion orchestrated by the “reds” rather than a revolt against the horrific economic conditions the US itself produces. So, the later expanded Monroe doctrine and NAFTA trade arrangements appear as modern features which mark a clear chronology of that same imperial struggle the US continues to employ.
Wielded like a bludgeon are the trade agreements used to beat other countries into submission. Illustrations previously used to depict this level of corporate control featured the tentacles of an octopus with the food cartels expanding their reach all over the globe. Monopolies found their home in the land of the free in an almost twisted irony. Do as I say not as I did became the advice as developing economies were pried open and their resources extracted without any consideration for what this was doing to their domestic economies. For the former colonial nations, they were quickly consumed in a modern feeding frenzy. Coming up against the likes of Great Britain and the US who had spent several years imposing tariffs, building up their own domestic industries, and producing for domestic markets, the newly emerging nations located all over Asia, Latin America and Africa never stood a chance. The impoverishment of the many became the enrichment of the few and continues unimpeded to this day. As political scientist Michael Parenti laments, while pointing to a still much concealed dialectic. That “such great wealth here and so much poverty there” exists side by side. And when we focus on poverty “we forget about wealth”. We are continually forced to view world hunger and poverty as an outcome of some natural laws rather than a specific set of policies advanced by the western capitalist states whose intended goal is to pursue them. What needs to be understood is that great wealth is actually what creates this type of mass poverty. The majority of the world is capitalist, and the vast majority of its people are poor.
“Super-Imperialism” is a term used by the economist Michael Hudson and is also the title of his 1972 book in which he describes the ascent of the US empire and what modifications were made as it inherited its new role as the global hegemon. What the US has been able to obtain from vulnerable nations as mediated by its foreign policies and by utilizing institutions like USAID can rightly be described as a form of food imperialism. In Food Politics even liberal writers like Robert Paarlberg make note of the policies the US pursues. American food aid given and paid for by the US taxpayer would be cheaper were the US “to purchase the food closer to the site of emergency” like other states “but rules set by Congress prevent the United States from doing the same”. As the food is shipped by US vessels and supported by the military it “helps keep an American merchant fleet in operation to provide secure ocean transport in the event of a future military conflict”. Overthrowing states and keeping them dependent is a sign of the food and military strategies the US pursues which are perfectly blended and incorporated with the monetary policy also enforced as the dollar and government bonds are forced onto weaker nations. The oil for food programme is another example and was pushed by the US as it imposed brutal sanctions on Iraq during the 90s which led to over a million unnecessary deaths.
Furthermore, economist Barry Eichengreen has pointed to the fact that because the dollar has replaced gold, “the US can run a trade deficit… importing more than it exports and consuming more than it produces year after year” which, when you quantify it, leads to an excess of nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of goods that are enjoyed by American citizens. Poorer nations are enveloped as a part of the US global trade system. Loss of rights over what crops are grown, soil rotation, seed diversity are all a part of the US strategy. For local farmers it spells anathema as big producers usurp their role and in keeping with capitalist expansion massive projects of enclosure commence where the locals are effectively cut-off from their own land and are transformed into wage workers or become locked into vicious cycles of debt with the banks in partnership with the food cartels. It’s a ruthless pattern of expansion and a continuation of the colonial process. Suicides among farmers in places like India are extremely high and this also includes farmers in the US who cannot finance their debts because of the “meat racket” who now control, and have outsourced, the main burdens associated with production which serves as both a method of control and as a cost-saving mechanism. All the risks involved in poultry production, for example, are dumped onto small producers. This includes the risks involved with the spread of deadly pathogens which might be ruinous for a particular farmer.
By destroying foundational relationships and by altering humanity’s metabolic relationship to the world around it, the US agri-business model has also been catastrophic for the environment. The use of monocultures, topsoil erosion and the patenting of seeds have pushed the ecology of several nations to their limits and is affecting not only the balance of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, in the soil but the quality of the food grown. The equilibrium established by sensitive ecological systems, developed over thousands of years, which include the actions of the native peoples in various countries who had embedded themselves as a key feature in the makeup of a mosaic of interrelated systems, is pushed aside and forced to make way for the giant soy manufacturers or the beef monopolists who, with mechanical might, steam through ancient landscapes erasing history as much as they remove natural foliage. As a consequence, access to the right soil and conditions are becoming more of a concern due to the environmental degradation that capitalism continues to encourage with its unsustainable and contradictory impetus in disrupting the balance of variables required by ecological systems.
The Anthropocene or “capitalocene”, as used by David Wallace-wells in The uninhabitable earth, best characterises the age we are living through. Human agency and interaction with the environment as mediated through a rapacious economic system has accelerated change in the climatic balance and as the book describes in detail if nothing is done the consequences for future generations will be grave. The conception of food under capitalism has also transformed and can longer be defined using rudimentary singular dimensions such as the act of eating. Food is now also the market; food is the environment and food has become the collective effort of world labour. All are overwhelmed by the forces of capital and reconfigured for the purpose of profit and represent a Marxist framework consistent with the capitalist totality when describing the market system as being in motion or as a “process” built on exploitation. Alongside a “free lunch” enjoyed by the US is the greater freedom corporations enjoy in an unfettered access to our ecosystems. The world and nature with its own existence outside of ours becomes “an object for mankind, purely a matter of utility…and the theoretical knowledge of its independent laws appears only as a stratagem to subdue it”. Our relationship to nature as Marx saw it was being quickly defined by the wealthy classes who had access to it. The power of the giant cartels to redefine our relationship to nature, one dominated by a corporate ethos of exploitation and “consumption” has guided humanity to the position we find ourselves in today.
Capitalism has created “a world in its own image” and even the most basic human relations are subsumed under its banner. The climate debacle overseen by the major powers is the single greatest threat humanity faces as the spectre of annihilation looms large and currently haunts the world future generations will inhabit. The fact that a food supply now exists in abundance but is still made inaccessible to deprived communities and poorer nations should really shed light on how anti-human and morally depraved capitalism is. Splintering humanity from its access to food and using issues of food poverty to enhance imperial interests has certainly warped global relations and the troughs of conflict continue to leave deep scars. The task of growing and distributing food represents a collection of human values that provide nourishment beyond the simple nutritional status gifted by nature. Food can represent solidarity, peace, and cooperation as without these ingredients and with a loss in national sovereignty production is stifled or transformed into the system we have today. In Big Farms Make Big Flu Rob Wallace makes the case that the agribusiness model is essentially “farming pathogens” as it seeks to produce food. By allowing it to continue we can expect more cases of new viral strains which might be more deadly than the current coronavirus. The task of creating a safe and stable food system that will feed everyone ends with capitalism or the system will drag us down with it.