The magic of money

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.

PIG TODAY-Dollar gains further traction on Trump tax talk

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.

What explains economists’ raptures?

supply and demand chart
Economists’ esoteric truth

THE SIMPLE PHILOSOPHICAL distinction between materialism and idealism is a handy way to understand how neoclassical economists came to worship the price mechanism as God. Here is Michael Symons’ essay on the topic, recently published in the online New Economy Journal under the heading, “Capitalism is idealism, perfected”

FOR MANY OF US, the market is an actual gathering of human buyers and sellers, chatting, tasting and sharing produce, which is often fresh and artisanal. At market benches and shop counters, people display and take in a community meal.

Mainstream economists turned that market into differential equations. In so doing, they perfected the idealism of capitalism. That is a big problem.

Idealism puts some high authority in charge of ordinary lives. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, claimed to glimpse the “world of forms” that shaped our inferior version.

Market capitalism directs human-beings through numbers, from higher interest rates to a supermarket saving of 60 cents.

Often perversely labelled “materialism”, the financial heights remake the world. Seemingly inevitably, profit and loss impose their rarefied rule. Of indisputable rationality, the price mechanism is God.

The promise is that, strictly obeyed, money will multiply eternally – cynically called “growth”, because it actually destroys growing things, from the heating biosphere to koalas without habitats.

Money is weightless, but a fierce enforcer that accumulates through heartless extraction, most efficiently from those with less.

It’s the most rationalised value system conceivable – valuing something not for being ethical, beautiful or tasty, but purely by price.

Every nonreflex action is taken to obtain or increase value in some sense; otherwise, no action takes place

– Investopedia explains

Many capitalist apologists pretend to being hard-nosed dealers in the grubby arts. Yet they worship an entirely spiritual desire, called “greed”.

The distinction between idealism and materialism is that the former sees the world as run by higher thoughts, and the latter by material fundamentals.

Idealists teach that actual bodies and everyday practices become misleading diversions, and materialists emphasise the provisional nature of ideas.

As a meal-lover, I fear that idealism is far too dangerously easy to adopt, unthinkingly. Proclaimed truths mould our minds.

Open-minded protagonists, on either side, allow that both rational thought and natural forces play big roles. The difference comes from which holds more sway. Do ideas come “from above” or “from below”?

A greater appreciation of the distinction should help to understand, and combat, the dictatorship of money. Does money run us, or do we keep it as an occasionally handy instrument?

I don’t propose some anarchic or hermitic refusal of money. Money is not without its uses, but only when clearly kept as a tool – as a community exchange system, and as a funder of cooperative endeavour.

Nonetheless, in moving towards a radical political economy, the plan is to regenerate care and consideration from below. Great schemes are built from the ground-up. Ordinary, everyday actions generate democratic supervision of political expenditures, programs and safeguards.

This is liberal “radicalism”, which does not mean extremism, but arguing from material basics… it literally gets to the root (Latin, radix) of the matter.

Materialists play close attention to commonplace sensations and activities. These “little things” are slighted as “trivial” from lofty vantage-points. Up-close, they are highly significant, and they multiply across human experience. The deterioration of relations with China, the rise of the FTSE 100, or some militant action might seem “important”, but only from its emergence from, and continuing connection with, everyday realities.

That’s to uphold the benefit of gardening, cooking and eating together. Community gardens and food rescue schemes are acknowledged actions of a “new economy”.

My latest book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, explores how a cluster of actual economies puts food on the table. There is no single “the economy”, but bodily, domestic, market, political and natural economies.

Capitalism simplified and up-ended that, diminishing basic human needs, with unhappy results. Instead of being guided by appetites, we were instructed to pursue ever-receding gain. Instead of cooperating through meals, we were to compete for dollars, euros, yuan and yen.

Radical arguments “from below” return to “the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, and have shelter and clothing”, to cite Friedrich Engels (at Karl Marx’s graveside, 17 March, 1883). Likewise, in a lengthy introductory section to Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith launched modern economics with the claim that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, such as the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

Too often, higher authorities have exploited, distorted, and suppressed gastronomic knowledge. The historical materialism of Marx and Engels turned into a narrow class war over the ownership of “production”, which split ruler irrevocably from ruled.

Meanwhile, in the service of the mighty financial superstructure, modern economists transformed market exchanges of actual meat, beer and bread into the perfection of the price mechanism.

“Mesmerising” descriptions of food

Weekend Australian 2
Weekend Australian, Books, 8-9 August 2020

YOU MIGHT NOT expect to read a scholarly tome about economics for pleasure. But this is gastronomic economics. As the Weekend Australian reviewer announces:

Revelling in the history, preparation and philosophy of food, he weaves its poetry into the text. Along with mesmerising descriptions of food …

For gastronomic works, such as Meals Matter, hedonism is not only a topic, but also a method, which is one reason why, unlike standard economics texts, I open each chapter not with a graph or financial table, but with a meal description.

Weekend Australian 1

Another reason is that the book challenges orthodoxies across economic theory, legal theory, political philosophy, food studies, and more. In the face of such transgressions, the hope is that the opening meals start out from a shared need to eat.

Hearteningly, academic readers for successive publishers gave strong support. The back-cover endorsements come from professors in disciplines as varied as politics, economics, anthropology, and European history.

In the 1980s, the “gastronomy” label put off academics, but this has plainly changed.

Eating and drinking brings in everyone, or almost everyone, and so what about the general or “trade” audience? At least in the book’s first extended review, Antonella Gambotto-Burke finds it enjoyable, with “mesmerising descriptions” (Weekend Australian Review, 8-9 August 2020, pp. 14-15).

 

Unlike the usual, more scholarly review, Gambotto-Burke does not attempt to set out the argument. Rather, she picks out key points, and joins the radical celebration, recommending:

Meals Matter is a passionate and inspiring proposal for change.

Upskirting shows how porn culture has caused a breakdown in ...
Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Antonella @gambottoburke is a seasoned reviewer and author (her next book is Apple: Sex, Motherhood and the Recovery of the Feminine). Inevitably, in close to 1300 words, she gets a couple of things wrong. I’m no “naive” idealist (that’s the self-proclaimed economists); I have thought of myself as a restaurateur but never as a chef – that was Jennifer Hillier at the Uraidla Aristologist (maybe I should?); and life generally improved after Dickensian England, because that was an exceptional low point, whose miserable conditions and food adulterations were brought on by laissez-faire capitalism.

For the full review, try clicking on Gambotto-Burke’s twitter link.

But since the Murdochs keep their gems behind a paywall, I’d better give some more, fairly random snippets, firstly, about present disasters:

Meals are now dismissed as “privileged leisure, self-indulgence, refueling, women’s work, or fattening”.

He is disturbed by how the stock market and money (“bread, dough, bacon, gravy, lettuce, or lolly”) have replaced organic food and its markets in human consciousness. Value, he observes, is now equated with finance.

He accuses mainstream economists of belittling “life-giving systems” and supporting “a Midas fantasy”, in which the “sounds, sights, and smells of actual markets” is ignored in favour of an arbitrary pricing system.

Neoliberalism, he writes, corrupted liberalism. Nineteenth-century economists reframed healthy impulses as greed.

And, secondly, about doing better:

He sees it as a “radical restoration of political philosophy and economics”, and he puts his case with the fervor of an idealist who addresses life as a pleasure founded on love and respect for his fellow man and, in that, for the planet itself.

This resplendent vision features a wealth that “might consist of forests, streams, farms, clever artisans, feasting townsfolk, wise elders, and grand city dining halls”: a utopia that makes no allowance for human fallibility or life-saving corporate homogenisation.

Meals Matter is a passionate and inspiring proposal for change. Symons’s suggestion that the “festal core” of democracy needs to be resurrected is certainly correct. Pleasure, in our culture, has come to be synonymous with stress relief rather than passion or joy.

Similarly, there is no question that sustainability and compensatory materialism must be addressed on a global level. We desperately need more love and idealism, if tempered by the recognition that the future cannot be found in the past.

 

Murals matter

9780231196024
Diego Rivera, “Wall St Banquet”

VISUALLY, MY BOOK OPENS and closes with murals. The cover borrows the “Wall Street Banquet” of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and the back flap author photo was taken in a restaurant in Germany. I suppose it’s a coincidence that the book is walled-in, so to speak, although there’s something about murals …

Rivera’s “Banquet” is part of a huge set in Mexico City, covering three floors and staircase of the Ministry of Public Education building, taking Diego and his team six years to finish. That was in 1928-29, as Wall Street crashed.

In this panel, eight diners share champagne, while being served ticker-tape streaming the latest stock market prices from the golden machine under a glass dome. Behind that is a bank vault with megaphones. A Statue of Liberty lamp balances on the table in the foreground.

Rivera, “Dinner of the capitalists”

At least some of the well-dressed guests are historical figures, including a Rockefeller, whose family would commission Rivera, who was an on-and-off-again communist, to work in the U.S. Inevitably, in 1934, the family instructed labourers to scrub out his most ambitious American piece, a huge mural in the foyer of The Rockefeller Centre, New York.

Meals Matter might almost equally have been illustrated by a nearby  mural in the Mexico series – “The dinner of the capitalists”, which shows a ruling family served coins, with revolutionaries with abundant food in the background.

Both murals belong to the building’s third level, which illustrates the “Ballad of the proletarian revolution”. Over the Wall St banquet, the banner translates as: “the rich man keeps thinking how to double his money.” The words over the capitalists’ dinner say: “Gold is worth nothing if there is no food”.

I came across Rivera’s murals when idly searching for an illustration of banquets, whose interpretation is important in Meals Matter. (I ended up with a photo of an electric chandelier in Glasgow!) The Wall St version is not strictly a banquet; in this case, “banquet” connotes privilege.

Symons portrait Max 7

The back flap author photo was taken in mid-2019 by my wife, Marion Maddox, in Hannover, Germany. She took out the phone at the Max Walloschke restaurant, where we went several times. Our revisits explain the two versions (shown here) in different clothes in front of different still lives.

Max Walloschke, who was a weightlifter, professional wrestler and German bowls champion, opened the Kneipe (“pub”) on 19 June, 1952.

IMG_20200323_124344735_HDRIn Berlin, I suspected that smart locals crowded old-time Austrian restaurants, because they could not admit to enthusing about what some might call “heavy German kitsch”.

However, Max Walloschke remains unapologetic, calling itself “Das Kultrestaurant am Steintor” – the “cult restaurant at the Steintor”, that is, the place with a dedicated following at the city’s old “stone gate”.

Another of their claims is “Hier gibt es das wahrscheinlich beste Eisbein der Stadt” –  “probably the best pork knuckle in town”.

The restaurant’s official slogan, “Gutbürgerliche Küche und gemütliches Ambiente seit 1952“, uses two words that are allegedly untranslatable. “Gutbürgerliche” suggests “homely” in the sense of lots of sausages, potatoes, and beer. And “gemütlich” hints at a “cosy” atmosphere, and more, because: “Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging.”

Max postcard
Max Walloschke postcard

The restaurant also boasts “authenticity” and “tradition”, which we can believe, and “Herzlichkeit” (“warmth”), which we can confirm. (I plan to say more on this.)

As immoveable artworks, genuine murals (rather than wallpapers) have tended to be sponsored for public places, including cafes and restaurants, where they often employ faux architectural elements to give the illusion of grandeur, space or being in the homeland – sometimes all at once, such as a panorama of the Bay of Naples through trompe-l’oeil pillars. The more Gutbürgerlich murals of beer, pork and vegetables encourage Gemütlichkeit.

I must find out the name of the painter, whose food murals contribute so warmly to Max Walloschke’s welcome.

“Wall St Banquet” on left

The economy isn’t about money. It’s about putting food on the table

Our Enlightenment predecessors recognized not one but five economies – and the pandemic has reinvigorated our taste for them.

By Michael Symons

open-democracy-logo_0

(Op-ed published under ourEconomy in openDemocracy, 19 June 2020)

POLITICAL LEADERS AND ECONOMIC commentators pronounced the coronavirus crisis a balancing act between “lives” (on one hand) and “the economy” (on the other). To save lives, “the economy” would have to contract, until it, too, needed saving – when we might have to sacrifice lives.

But what is this singular “economy”?

Economists model “the economy” through the price mechanism, and evaluate it through such measures as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even many economists have grown restive, warning, for example, that the GDP is misleading, and recommend such non-financial indicators as “well-being”.

The deception goes much deeper. Broadly, “the economy” puts money in command. Under the guise of the old “laissez-faire”, then “free enterprise”, and more recently neoliberal “greed is good”, money funded its own self-aggrandizement. The resulting ideology handed enormous power to finance and business chiefs – and governments, often on money’s behalf.

As I set out in my new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, for two centuries, modern economists misappropriated Enlightenment ideas on behalf of money. Their distorted “economy” might have boosted productivity, but worsened inequality, demoralized democracy, and tipped the natural world towards disaster. Please, no more “business as usual”.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment. An actual economy puts food on the table. It’s life-giving, which is why care, health and food workers never stopped being “essential”.

Back when Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations launched modern economics in 1776, many writers well understood the gastronomic basis of economies. Even Smith argued that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, including the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

More than that, Enlightenment philosophers recognized five, interconnected economies. Each type of economy supplies sustenance in a distinct way, with money surprisingly inessential. While side-lined by economists, these five are everyday realities for eaters. The lockdown renewed attention to all five, and dramatized the need to rebalance them.

First comes the domestic economy. Society’s “building-block” was the original oikonomia. Such ancient Greek writers as Xenophon instructed on the management of the family home (or oikos). Economics advised on housework, indoors and out. The family’s method of sharing food and its labour among themselves was defined by sociologist Max Weber a century ago as communist. Given the history of paternalism, Weber referred to what he called the “ideal-type”, but, most certainly, no money required.

The virus brought the domestic economy roaring back. Home offices, home schooling, and home cooking all expanded, complete with the widespread rediscovery of sourdough baking. Many predict that, having been rediscovered, this economy might not entirely snap back to “the economy”. For 51% of respondents of one U.S. survey (late-May 2020), the “new normal” would include continuing to cook more often at home. Together with more people preferring to work from there, cooking might now not go the way of home sewing – from commonplace to minority hobby.

In Adam Smith’s day, Enlightenment intellectuals were preoccupied with the political economy (from polis, the ancient Greek for “city”). This is a town, nation or similar conceived as a great household. Some central authority accepts responsibility for the distribution of nourishment, acquired through a community-wide division of labor. This method is food redistribution (although the term has come to mean transferring resources from the rich to the poor, or vice versa).

Since their earliest examples, temples and courts coordinated wide gathering and serving of food, centred on often ostentatious-seeming sacrifices and banquets. With increasing sophistication, redistribution seemed less directly nutritional. In a decisive development, authorities adopted money taxation and disbursement as an intermediary. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out in 1651, money became a more transportable and less perishable food substitute, which circulated like blood around the “body politic”, for conversion back to nourishment, when required.

Dramatized by the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789, the French Revolution was meant to democratize the monarch’s role as “baker-king”, including Versailles banquets. On the Revolution’s first anniversary, General Lafayette supervised “endless tables” under Parisian trees for 22,000 provincial representatives, followed by 5,000 of the poor. However, attempts at literal feasting in the streets demonstrated the sophistication already attained by supply chains.

9780231196024The modern banquet is an intricate affair, almost lost to view. Yet the coronavirus has brought this political economy to the fore, with governments directing social distancing, shifting resources to health, boosting emergency food and survival incomes, and also spending to save “the economy”.

When Hobbes imagined the political economy as a giant Leviathan with a crowned head over an agricultural nation, he saw a “body politic”, drawing an analogy with the human physiology. The terms “physiology” and “economy” were virtually interchangeable at the time. French économistes would gain the nick-name “physiocrats”, for example. Furthermore, Enlightenment intellectuals spoke of the person as an animal economy. Each of us can be viewed as an economy, centred on nutrient flows.

Liberal thinking emerged with Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson arguing every individual’s equal need, enforced by nature, for self-preservation, primarily through nutrition, and best served through a commonwealth of mutual support. They established a near-sacred right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The liberal response to the pandemic has underlined this social contracted care for the individual. By contrast, more authoritarian leaders have downplayed individual health for the sake of “the economy”. With the decline in the neoliberal promotion of liberty, rightwing leaders are increasingly inclined to identify “the economy” with “the nation”.

Typically of Enlightenment economists, François Quesnay was a medical professional – he was Madame de Pompadour’s physician. By 1747, when writing on the animal economy, he found parallels in the social distribution of primary production, notably the buying and selling of grain. Quesnay decided that, like the body, the market economy was preferably left to work “naturally”. Rather than the “baker-king” controlling prices, Quesnay saw benefits in market exchange. French économistes had a huge influence on Adam Smith, when he socialized with them while living in Paris during early free-market experimentation.

With the nineteenth-century rise of corporate capitalism, Smith’s early supporters promoted the market’s “invisible hand” as superior to any other economic coordinator, notably as much more efficient than democracy. They advocated liberty for money, while ignoring equality, life and happiness. Dropping “political” from their name, they imperiously proclaimed themselves “economists”.

Later in the nineteenth century, “marginalist” economists used the mathematical calculus to describe the behaviour of market prices, so mesmerizingly that they thought they studied nothing short of “the economy”. John Maynard Keynes became synonymous with some pushback within the ranks. However, again with the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher era, neoliberal leaders obeyed economists’ fundamentals to restore supreme freedom to money.

Significantly, the virus exposed the hollowness of demands for “small government”. With budget deficits of lesser concern, given obvious government support for “the economy”, many citizens hope that democratic power might more forcefully save a fifth economy, the most essential of all.

The coronavirus starkly reminded that all economies depend on the intricate web of nutrient flows of the natural economy. Charles Darwin still used that term, “natural economy”, in his Origin of the Species in 1859 (German zoologist Ernst Haeckel introduced “ecology” ten years later). Undeniably, money’s ceaseless push for so-called “growth” has trampled on actual growth.

In summary, the present tumultuous rebalancing has demonstrated the market economy to be poorly-equipped to cope with viral attacks on the animal economy, leading to renewed reliance on the domestic economy, while governments at local, national and global levels have reasserted the political economy. Finally, as players at all levels must surely soon accept, the overall, natural economy must return urgently to prominence, or we’re all shut down.

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This article by Michael Symons was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit openDemocracy.net for more.
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Postpandemic hopes

From Columbia University Press blog

Pandemic survivors will emerge into a profoundly changed world with more social media and online shopping, less commuting, the collapse of cash, improved health care, emptier cities, increased authoritarianism, globalism, nationalism… among any number of often contradictory early predictions.

His presidential aspirations abandoned, Senator Bernie Sanders declared, “many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system.”

“Decisions about dinner have for too long been written off as trivial and self-indulgent. I respond: when did human sustenance stop being fundamental?”

Weighty policy decisions have to be made, elections fought, gross inequality alleviated, taxes revamped, and budgets revived. The struggles entailed in finding the “new normal” might seem far too big and important for gastronomy. But decisions about dinner have for too long been written off as trivial and self-indulgent. I respond: when did human sustenance stop being fundamental?

Gastronomy could, and should, help as urgently as possible even where it might seem least equipped—the philosophical essentials, those “basic assumptions.” For me, gastronomy as the “diner’s sense of the world” is unparalleled for understanding liberal concepts of freedom, equality, democracy, family life, environmental care, political action, and more.

The supreme science, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin saw it, has lain largely undeveloped since he published Physiology of Taste in 1826. I suspect that gastronomy was belittled precisely because its radicalism was so compelling.

“I suspect that gastronomy was belittled precisely because its radicalism was so compelling.”

My new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, charts how capitalism’s apologists, especially economists, upended political philosophy. Since the early nineteenth century, they have distorted socially aware Enlightenment liberalism into varieties of free enterprise and neoliberalism, which accord liberty to money.

Meals Matter shows economists proclaiming money’s unbreakable laws while trivializing eating and drinking. Commodity production, food processing, trade, and hospitality might rate financially as industries, but economists sidelined actual meal-sharing as “utility,” “externality,” “irrational,” “domestic work,” and “leisure.” Casting appetite aside, economists favored greed.

Such founding liberals as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau based their arguments on each person’s natural right to self-preservation, which meant attending to the “pleasure of the stomach,” to quote the then influential ancient philosopher Epicurus. The natural right became a social one, once individuals accepted that their best interests actually lay in collaboration.

Even the economists’ hero, Adam Smith, stressed that “we expect our dinner” through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes,” including the butcher, brewer, and baker (my emphasis).

In drafting the U.S. Declaration of Independence, meal-lover and Epicurean Thomas Jefferson enshrined equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The equivalent French trio became liberty, equality, and conviviality (my translation of fraternité).

“Even the economists’ hero, Adam Smith, stressed that “we expect our dinner” through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes,” including the butcher, brewer, and baker (my emphasis).”

Under capitalism, laissez-faire apologists so abstracted the concept of liberty from its gastronomic base that it could apply to profit-seeking corporations. Their legal and political “personhood” overlooked the undeniable fact that firms do not eat, let alone gain happiness by sharing with others.

Among key correctives, Meals Matter proposes that we stop speaking of a single “the economy,” when we rely on several: not just the market but also the original, domestic economy and the political economy. As well as exposing the vacuity of “greed is good” bluster, the pandemic has returned responsibilities from the market economy toward home life and government. COVID-19 reminds us that human beings thrive, and suffer, together, and within a further, natural economy, too.

Are political leaders likely to become more sympathetic to gastronomy? Could many soon agree with Meals Matter that real social benefits accrue from the thoughtful application of the ancient principle, “eat, drink, and be merry”?

“Many people have reawakened under lockdown to balcony gardening, home baking and preserving, and domestic meal-sharing.”

Tyrants will continue to appeal to higher authorities, whether religious, nativist, or moneyed, and even liberal politicians are likely to remain wary of mundane sensual pleasures. On the other hand, the liveliness of foodies, food activists, reborn farmers, and socially committed restaurateurs in recent years makes me more optimistic. Many people have reawakened under lockdown to balcony gardening, home baking and preserving, and domestic meal-sharing.

I also take hope that serious scholars have given up the old academic disdain for eating and drinking. My book’s four endorsers represent a gratifying spread of expertise—professors of politics, political economy, anthropology of food, and European history have, between them, detected “the potential to upend many orthodoxies” and “a passionate call to create a more convivial world.”

Republished from Columbia University Press blog…

How our “consolation of profit” thesis helps understand restaurants, megachurches, and Trump

MARION MADDOX AND I have just published a paper, “The consolation of profit”,* in New Formations, a journal of contemporary culture and politics.

Perhaps the quickest introduction is bottled water. Why do people pay for something they can get out of the tap?

Marion and Michael 3
At Max Walloschke, Hannover

Certainly, the hefty marketing promises health and status. But to those familiar explanations, we add another: the insistent hawking itself arouses a reasonable expectation that sellers are so desperate for profit that they will risk no other complication. If it’s outside the market economy, can it really be safe?

The “consolation of profit” arose from attempts to understand consumer anxiety when Jennifer Hillier and I ran the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant more according to our own earnest ideas than the Market’s.

 

Along with a funny name, the Aristologist had no piped music, no Coca-Cola, no smoking (except in a special room or outside), and otherwise signalled more than mere profit-seeking. The precipitating incident was a sweet, young couple looking at the menu, and asking if they might repair instead to a nearby restaurant. Our food would be “too spicy”, they explained, although, in reality, this would have applied more to the other place.

A more likely explanation was that the Aristologist might seem to require savoir-faire, an unfamiliar wine, reflection on the experience, or any number of other interactions.

McDonald’s redoubles the assurances. Their so-called “restaurants” advertise utterly predictable food – “Do you want fries with that?” – and stilted interactions – “Have a nice day”. The hammering of cheapness backs the warranty: no any other demand.

As a religious studies scholar, Marion added the second case-study. Why have megachurches been on the rise, when mainline churches have generally declined? Megachurches have replaced old liturgies with the forms of rock concerts and television tonight shows. Theirs is “Jesus lite”.

The “consolation of profit” thesis adds that, whereas a tight, more traditional congregation might threaten personal, social or deep theological challenges, these “growth churches” preach a simple message, “we want your money.” The merchandising in the foyer, donation buttons on web-pages, repeated onstage appeals shout out the safety of profit-seeking. The upfront demand for money could risk no challenge.

Our third case study asks how could anyone vote for such a shallow charlatan as Donald Trump? Together with lies and racism, his heavily-funded election campaign came with the “consolation of profit”. Trump never pretended to be anything more than a super-salesman with advertising slogans in place of policies.

This self-professed artist of “the deal” grew up in the congregation of prosperity gospel preacher, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of a string of business self-help titles, most famously, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding.

Voting for the celebrity money-maker guarded against any untoward governmental decisions. Selling himself as the greatest, Trump offered no “deep state” threats. Denouncing elite expertise, he ostentatiously ruled through Fox News tweets.

With the pandemic, the Symons-Maddox thesis sees a hard-selling, anti-intellectual braggart struggling with an unanticipated crisis. “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it”; “I like this stuff. I really get it,” etc, shows he has nothing to sell but himself.

How enduring the consolation proves against obvious lack of social commitment, we’ll find out in November.

*Michael Symons and Marion Maddox (2020), “The consolation of profit,” New Formations 99: 110-126

99: Cultures of Compensation

How to buy Meals Matter

9780231196024PURCHASE THE BOOK THROUGH YOUR favourite seller, several mail-order firms, or through Columbia University Press with a discount.*** E-books are instant. Six months after holding a hardback straight off the press, I finally saw a copy in an Australian bookshop (Gleebooks, $56). Blame the coronavirus for pushing up airfreight costs. In answer to that, copies are being printed locally (rrp AU$57.95).

***Here is the Columbia link to use the friendly promo code CUP30 for a 30% discount. Before delivery, the Columbia site quotes $35.00 US and £30.00. With discount and postage to Australia, I recently made the total $52.44 AUD. An ebay seller has copies for $55.62, and bookdepository seek $63.61).

Meals Matter - Author with first copy
Author with first copy

Now for something completely different … cheese savouries

Mini croque monsieur bites on eatlivetravelwrite.comSOMETIMES THINGS fall into place so neatly as to be scarcely noticed. But I have never let myself forget the good fortune in discovering a simple savoury that we served to every customer from the first night of our restaurant in Tuscany in 1979 until Jennifer Hillier shut the doors on the Uraidla Aristologist seventeen years later.

The cheese savouries became minor celebrities, and various recipes have popped up in magazines and the internet over the years. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have revealed our source, until now.

To quote a recent correspondent with this blog:

Hi Michael – way back when living in Adelaide, I visited several times your lovely Aristologist restaurant in Uraidla – and so often reflect on the wonderful food that came to our table. I was wondering if your recipe for those lovely ‘cheese aperitifs’ that greeted us at the table as we began our evening was available in any publication? Sitting here in London on a grey morning, with this awful virus being the latest ‘panic’ we are facing, I was thinking how lovely it would be to be guided as to how to rekindle the taste buds with these lovely ‘bites’. If you could send me in the right direction, that would be wonderful.
with warmest wishes
Jill

A quick online search showed up this version, “Grown-up grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches” on the blog of Mardi Michels, now living in Toronto, and who admitted she first ate them “at the legendary Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills, where I was fortunate enough to dine a few times when I was way too young to really appreciate it”.

Mardi has added tomato in Toronto

 

That’s Mardi Michels’s photo, here. She wrote about them again as “Croque Monsieur bites”, which is the photograph at the top. We only ever grilled them draped in grated cheese.

On the night before we opened the Cantina di Toia, we were still desperately seeking something to serve with a glass of the Fattoria de Bacchereto’s vin ruspo, the local, fresh, light, rosato-style wine that makes an excellent aperitivo. The best Sydney restaurant back then – Tony and Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn – would open with something with a glass of champagne. If such a welcome was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Like them, we offered a fixed price meal (with several choices), which we thought of as a “licence for generosity” (a description Gay agreed with).

Il Libro della vera Cucina Fiorentina: Paolo Petroni ...

In desperation, where does a person turn? We loved Paolo Petroni’s serious local recipe book, but wanted something less familiar for our customers. Italians scarcely knew even basic French things like quiches, let alone the Antipodean Pavlova (both of which we served). So, I checked out Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Mastering the Art.

It was in this last that I found “Croûtes [Toasted Bread Cases]” on page 222 of the Penguin paperback edition. The selected filling became “Fondue au Gruyère [Cream Filling with Swiss Cheese]”, two pages later. I presume that was the original filling – in my head, it’s just a thick, white, cheese sauce. A béchamel, if you will.

To summarise our method: we purchased white, unsliced “supermarket” bread a day or two early (slightly older is easier to handle). Take off the crusts, then cut into approximately 4cm-thick slices, which are divided both ways, to come up with cubes. Next, the tricky bit. After doing this countless times, I became committed to a perfect, little, sharply pointed knife, with which I hollowed the cubes out exceedingly neatly. Brush with melted butter, and crisp a little in the oven until pale gold.

Meanwhile, you will have made a thick white sauce. That is, heat flour and butter in a saucepan to make a golden paste, add milk, slowly at first to stir out even the possibility of lumps. Add grated cheese. Following Beck, Bertholle and Child, we “enriched” with an egg yolk or two. (Did we grate in nutmeg? – not sure.) Fill the cubes, covered with a pinch more cheese, and brown them in the hot oven.

Think that’s right, Jill! It’s many years since we made them. But you now have the source recipe.

Cheese savouries Mastering

The end of the world? In many ways, but maybe, you never know…

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

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.

Meals Matter Front flap 3

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.