EMPTY SUPERMARKET shelves. Flights banned. Cruise lines taking a holiday . . . That’ll pass.
But Parisian bars, cafes and restaurants totally closed? That’s the end of some world or another.
More than just locked restaurants across the globe, urban life closes down and, with it, many seeming certainties. How unconvivial could this get?
My new book, Meals Matter, develops a “radical economics” from John Locke, Brillat-Savarin and others. As the first copies are being printed, a major rethink feels even more necessary. As First Dog on the Moon says: “Things are crazy and scary and they were already crazy and scary before.”
Meals Matter laments the two-century dismissal of meals – the disparagement of domesticity, the corruption of the lively marketplace, and the denigration of the wider, political meal. For this last, I reclaim the name, “banquet”. Needless to say, going along with money’s demands, governments so abandoned their meal – the banquet – that it remains scarcely visible.
Along comes the coronavirus, and governments act financially. Save the stockmarket! This is meant to “save jobs” to maintain metaphorical “bread”, although cynics also know that businesses seek to “capitalise the gains and socialise the losses”.
The government “banquet” should be not just emergency provisioning, but a whole meal. After all, any good meal comprises not just nutrients, but also comfort, pleasure, companionship, beauty, health, learning….
The aristocratic and religious hierarchies embellished their banquets with fine architecture and arts, and employed musicians, dancers, clowns, and jesters to tell truths. They staged whole after-dinner operas.
After pulling down monarchies and theocracies, the people anticipated their own mighty, popular banquets. But capitalism rose up within and against democratic republics, preferring only one meal, that of the market, and that merely conceived as prices.
Without government employment, artists were expected to rely on the market, and private patronage.
Suddenly, performers are out of work. I can no longer attend Verdi’s Attila at the Opera House tonight, nor the Bowral music festival next weekend. With a pandemic shaking live music and theatre to the core, government support looks slim indeed.
New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, just wrote:
it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.
Things are changing. Social-distancing and self-isolation atomise face-to-face meals. Yet mass banquets reappear on balconies. Neighbours drop food off at front doors. The whole world comes together as never before.
Just maybe those who survive the pandemic might have been reminded the hard way that meals matter far more than money. If dictatorships haven’t further edged out liberal democracies, the banqueters might appreciate that the political household depends on cooperative health care, decent educations, the performing arts….
You never know, perhaps even mainstream economists will soon disown their slogan, “greed is good.” Governments might re-nationalise airlines….
Michelle Goldberg also wrote: “Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture.”
To help prepare, put in your orders for Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.