Tuesday, April 22, 2014

World literature and food prices

World literature takes me very far afield at times. Take the case of an article in The Guardian entitled "We don't value food because it is not expensive enough." What, one may ask, does the price of food have to do with world literature? I will try to explain, but, first, to the article, which intrigued me: anyone who has been to the grocery store lately, after all, finds that food is too expensive. I have been wanting to make leak soup for two years, but the price hereabouts, $2,99 a pound even in summer, is prohibitive. And zucchini at $1.99 a pound?

The article features a British woman who owns and runs a 117-acre "former council" farm where she raises sheep and engages in "animal husbandry. According to the article, Britain once had 16,000 such council farms, small parcels of land rented out to farming families or individuals who didn't have their own land, but that are now being sold off. (So, for those of you wanting to get out of academia and get back to the land, here is an opportunity.) She was prompted to buy the farm by the following question: "Do we want everything to be imported, to deny our farming heritage, to get rid of every opportunity for young farmers?"

Even those of us who have made their accommodation with modern mechanical civilization cannot but lament the disappearance of humans' former connectedness to "the land." Indeed, if you read Marx and Engels carefully, esp. their early writings, you can discern a desire for something less rationalistic and technological, in fact the suspicion that reason and science are not the answer to the human condition. Engels, in his essay on "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," writes of the pre-capitalistic era, when a craft worker could say: "I made that; this is my product." It strikes me that Marxism's "scientific socialism" simply systematized Romanticism, especially a desire for an organic society.

We who live in the affluent West, however, have the "luxury" to experience what we believe to be a more "organic" way of life. My own Boomer generation seems at times immensely alienated from all that has made our lives safe and comfortable. If we like, we can actually choose hardship: buy farms and carve out a new way of life for ourselves. If people don't have it in them to go back to nature and live, they buy "organic" foods or create living spaces that express an ethos that signifies their rejections of the larger industrial order. Personally I have nothing against such decisions; it is the upside of the affluent modern order that we can fashion our own destinies. And many of the small enterprises that people create through their hard work lead to employment for many other people, not to mention good coffee and food. I only hope that our government doesn't tax us so highly that future generations will be deprived of what we are so fortunate to enjoy.

 Now, to the price of food and world literature.

Goethe's remark that a foreign literature helps a nation to understand itself was prescient in an unintended way: on a mundane level novels as well as fashion journals were creating a desire to know how others were eating and drinking and dressing as well as the aspiration to imitate new fashions. Supranational trade and commerce began to unite the bourgeoisie of the different European nations in their tastes, contributing to an incipient cultural product, i.e., "Europe," that was alike in its eagerness for foreign products as much as for translations of foreign literatures. One result of such commerce is  products that efface national differences. I remember when you used to be able to tell Germans and French apart by the way they dressed; no more. Even Hollywood movies are increasingly made for an international market and, as has been remarked, often have little to do with American "values."

Another effect of such global commerce is that prices for commodities become increasingly lower and the products more widespread. Who could afford a personal computer thirty years ago? Only the wealthy. But now everyone can have one. Despite what I consider the prohibitive (for me) high monthly charge for iPhones or cell phone use, I notice that many people who might be considered poor have these devices. Prices for food may be higher in Manhattan where I live, but apparently in other parts of the West they are not. Thus, the complaint of the woman profiled in The Guardian. She wants people to pay more for food, because, she asserts, there is too much waste.

Well, no one who has eaten in a Manhattan restaurant can deny our wastefulness in regard to food. Affluence and a rising standard of living don't make people spartan or make them value what they don't have to struggle for. We take a lot for granted. Historically most people have struggled to feed and clothe themselves; do we wish to return to struggling? From what I have read, a fall in the rate of mortality in the late 18th and early 19th century led to an increase in population and thus the pressure to feed people. Capitalism rose to the challenge in the 19th century, and the result today is the multinational food enterprise.

Picture sources: 100 Red Flags; Enterra Solutions

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