Human need vs capitalist greed: A gastronomic rebuttal of mainstream economics
By Michael Symons
[This essay summarises some main themes of Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, and was published in Economic Sociology & Political Economy, 10 November 2020, now with minor corrections]
“A TAP OF MY MAGIC WAND … and all you see is money!” With this, the conjurer distracts attention from healthy bodies, happy households, wise governments, and nature. Even the actual market of bread, apples and beer disappears behind the price mechanism.
For more than two centuries, capitalism has rewritten economics.
The ancient Greek oikonomia – “household management” – concerned the satisfaction of basic human needs. Economics remained that way until the rise of for-profit corporations in the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century. To suit capitalism, modern economists concentrated everyone’s attention on the powerful tool, money.
Mainstream economists celebrated financial rule, and relegated human needs to, at best, incidental beneficiaries. Instead of appetite, the motive became greed. Instead of well-being, wealth meant bullion. Instead of natural growth, it became money’s eternal expansion. Instead of every individual counting, it became each for himself.
Success was measured by market indices, inflation, deficits, GDP, bottom lines, and tax cuts. Money gained such a hold that it shrank a person to a buyer-seller, merging human-beings with for-profit corporations. The relentless push for profit culminated in crises in health, equity, democracy and nature.
My latest book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, explores how actual economies put food on the table, and how capitalism up-ended that, neglecting human needs, with unhappy results.
Dedicated to gastronomy as the “diner’s sense of the world”, the book rereads Epicurus, Hobbes, Locke, Quesnay, Brillat-Savarin, Marx, Jevons, Weber, Mises, Polanyi, Fisher, and Friedman, among the mix. Taking meals seriously upsets political and economic orthodoxies, as I sketch here.
By “radical” economics, I don’t mean extreme, just getting back to basics – true to the word’s derivation from the Latin radix for “root” (as in “radish”).
Such grounded activities as gardening, cooking, drinking, and talking politics might seem “trivial” from some superior vantage-point. However, the “little things” are highly significant at the grass roots, and multiply across humanity. The deterioration of trade relations with China or some militant action might claim “importance”, but only from its links to everyday experience.
Meals Matter shows how such Enlightenment thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau still based their arguments on the fundamental need to eat and drink. For them, the natural law of “self-preservation” called for “subsistence”, “comforts” and “conveniencies”.
Locke’s core right to “life” meant to a living or livelihood, that is, to “food and raiment, and other conveniencies”. Locke quoted Richard Hooker’s statement that, to obtain necessities, “we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others… in politic societies”.
For Locke, in the Second Treatise chapter, “On property”, the plain fact was that people, “once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence”. He raised questions about when an apple becomes “one’s own” (that is, property) – is it when digested, chewed, cooked, brought home or picked? The individual also had to be permitted to labour on their self-preservation, within bodily, social and natural limits.
Enlightenment theorists knew several types of household or economy, each based on a different mode of distribution. Only two types used money, and even then it was not essential.
The original oikos or family economy circulates nutriments through communism. Although sometimes distorted through paternalism, the family follows the guideline, “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.
Finding parallels with the domestic household, Enlightenment thinkers knew the human body as the “animal economy”, employing digestive and circulatory systems.
In like manner, the “political economy” was a “body politic”. Depicting the head, heart and arms in the frontispiece to his Leviathan, Hobbes saw money coursing around the body politic as preserved food, kept for another time or place.
In Chapter 24 of Leviathan, Hobbes explained:
By Concoction, I understand the reducing of all commodities, which are not presently consumed, but reserved for Nourishment in time to come, to some thing of equall value, and withall so portable, as not to hinder the motion of men from place to place; to the end a man maye have in what place soever, such Nourishment as the place affordeth. And this is nothing else but Gold, and Silver, and Mony.
The body politic’s “head” – in charge of collecting and redistributing food (or its substitute) – could be an autocrat or group of people. (My book discusses the political banquet in more detail.)
Thinkers back then spoke of the confining, “natural economy”. Charles Darwin still used the Linnean phrases, “economy of nature” and “polity of nature”, in Origin of Species in 1959; Ernst Haeckel coined “ecology” in 1866.
As well as these economies, a separate market economy, based on exchange, became more visible in the mid-eighteenth century. The French économistes, led by Madame de Pompadour’s physician François Quesnay, found parallels of the œconomie animale in the distribution of grain, hampered by the interventions of the “baker-king”.
Visiting France through 1764-1766, during an experiment in grain-trade liberalization, Adam Smith picked up économiste ideas about leaving the market to its own devices. Nonetheless, Smith still introduced Wealth of Nations in 1776, with the recognition that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, such as the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.
Radical ideas supported American, French, and subsequent republics. However, just when the people were successfully contesting autocracy, corporate capitalism muscled in.
Jean-Baptiste Say’s interpretation of Smith as a free marketeer influenced a new generation of business-linked political economists (no longer physicians and philosophers), among them David Ricardo, who found importance in the arithmetical relationships between workers’ wages, business operators’ profits and property-owners’ rents.
Along with that, capitalist authority relentlessly undercut and also, where convenient, appropriated Lockean guidelines. In particular, the confusingly-named “classical” liberalism handed the human right of self-preserving liberty to money, thereby backing “laissez-faire”, then “free enterprise” and eventually “neoliberal” campaigns.
With capitalism picking up pace, radical arguments from below returned with Karl Marx, for whom the “first premise” of society remained “eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things”. He found importance in the class struggle over the ownership of the means of production.
With the “marginal revolution” of the 1860s, Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger and other economic theorists elevated market exchanges of actual meat, beer and bread into differential equations.
“Political economists” dropped the modifier through the nineteenth century, becoming, imperialistically, “economists”. Self-styled “economists” presented “the economy” as little more than profits and prices, and so tasteless, colourless, unequal, and not alive. For decades, the financial superstructure suppressed radical insights.
The Sixties brought some relief, when the technological sophistication of capitalist industry required a more highly educated workforce, and slicker marketing formed desirous consumers. The counterculture gained gastronomic appetites, with concerns for unprocessed foods, co-ops, communes, “dropping out”, the environment, and, in 1969, the Black Panther free breakfast program for school children.
The now abstract notions of “liberty” and “equality before the law” were employed to free up aspects of society and culture, among the most notable being women’s liberation. Centre-left governments of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Paul Keating and others found common cause with neoliberalism’s libertarian tendencies, while remaining ensnared in money’s insistent logic.
With a resurgence of conservative reaction, money resorted again to culture wars, with liberals now the dangerous “other”.
Recommending a considerably more intricate, life-centred economics, Meals Matter looks to the everyday activism of growers, cooks, and meal-lovers through a bewildering array of grassroots movements for urban farms, alternative economies, Slow Food, food justice, food sovereignty, agroecology, and more.
Radical economists must call money’s bluff, and prosecute a full agenda, including the freeing of “free” markets, held hostage to corporations.
Fundamentally, hope lies in the joyful rediscovery of the “little things” for which all individuals have equal rights, pursuing life, liberty, and happiness in harmony with the rest of nature.