Writing for Cosmopolitan in 1906, the American lawyer, journalist and short-story writer, Alfred Henry Lewis observed: “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.”
Being a lawyer, it comes as no surprise that he was using anarchy as a synonym for chaos. But the statement does highlight the fragility of a dominant socioeconomic system which relies heavily on manufactured scarcity, widespread insecurity, a generalised lack of self-confidence in our ability to provide for ourselves, and a crippling, state-induced paternalism. Lewis was warning that potential social upheaval is never far away, but that situation is deepened by the dominant economic model. As we witnessed in the initial months of the Covid-19 Crisis, and before that during the UK fuel protests, the ‘just-in-time’ supply system becomes highly unstable very quickly during times of crisis.
The UK Fuel Protest, which began on September 8th, 2000, had major effects on the supply chain within days. By September 12th the protests, combined with panic buying (also a contributing factor to the CV-19 shortages), had caused 3000 petrol stations to close their forecourts. The next day, NHS services were placed on red alert, supermarkets began rationing supplies of certain goods (which led to further panic buying), the Royal Mail said that it could not maintain deliveries, and schools began to close. On the 14th, just six days after they began, the protests began to end, averting any real hardship. Nobody had gone hungry (apart from the usual tolerated percentage of ‘deserving poor’ of course), but the very possibility of shortages had seen a rapid deepening of the crisis.
Now, with the global economy even more tightly entwined, combinations of coronavirus, Brexit, imperial wars and even cargo ships getting stuck in canals, have caused similar supply crises in recent years. The main excuse for just-in-time supply is efficiency, but the bottom line of capitalism — constant economic growth at any cost — demands the very opposite of efficiency. An efficient system, one which supplied the needs of all, would be both resilient and fair. But the capitalist system has been desperately seeking ways to cut corners, wages and rights in the name of profit since Shmidt started shovelling (Shmidt was an anecdotal worker in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s long discredited — but still worshipped by greedy bosses — time and motion study which gave rise to the pseudoscience of ‘Scientific Management’).
Capitalism has proved itself, time and again, incapable of providing humanity and our non-human kin the basics required for a stable, happy, free and fulfilled life. But as long as a certain percentage of people do not go hungry, and remain content with the regular dopamine hits they get from shopping, entertainment, holidays, drugs, social media and a secure supply of bog roll, then we will never have a supply system capable of weathering the converging storms of ecological collapse, growing authoritarianism, imperial wars and global pandemics.
So how do we make an efficient, resilient and fair supply chain capable of providing for the needs of all life? Well the short answer is: through anarchy and peace. But I shall elaborate on this statement further using the focus of Lewis’ aphorism, that absolute essential to human (and indeed, all…) life, food.
As I mentioned in my previous article for Freedom, I have been visiting food projects across the north of England, and have had Zoom chats with projects further afield, as part of my work to help build the newly emerging, Zapatista inspired, DIY Alliance. My own focus has been on the community-led, self-organised provision of food, as this is the area that I am most directly familiar with. I have been looking at existing anarchist/anarchy-friendly solutions and ways to close the food production/supply circle so that communities have greater control over their own food provision, especially in times of crisis. This has little to do with self-sufficiency, it is more about food sovereignty, food security and food autonomy.
As I mentioned in the previous article: “relationships are key to building a better, braver, brighter future for all.” Or as Tomás Ibáñez puts it in Anarchism Is Movement (Freedom Press, 2019):
“[T]here is no “essence” of anarchism that exists beyond circumstance. Anarchy cannot be this or that in itself, but is the product of relations.”
The anarchist imperative is, I believe, to explore, build and celebrate essential new relationships of mutual support, solidarity and self-organisation in everyday life — regardless of the times we find ourselves in — and to support and defend those relationships in any way we can, especially during times of crises. As CrimethInc.’s mythbusting From Democracy to Freedom puts it:
“If we understand freedom as a collectively produced relationship to our potential rather than a static bubble of private rights, being free is not simply a question of being protected by the authorities, but the project of creating open-ended spaces of possibility.”
I quoted from Carissa Honeywell’s book Anarchism (Polity Press, 2021) to the same ends in my last article. I feel that Carissa’s, CrimethInc.’s, and Tomás’ books collectively and perfectly embody the emerging anarchism of the 21st Century. A century with unique problems compared to those of preceding centuries, but one which also presents new technological and organisational opportunities for real and lasting change… if we can create the essential relationships necessary to bring this about.
New relationships may offer the possibility for fairer, more secure and sustainable food systems, but food itself also offers the potential to build new relationships. As Carissa says in her book:
“Eating together traditionally symbolises equality, interdependence and community. The shared meal can be the manifestation of shared effort, companionship, care and kinship, a ‘form of social practice lodged in needs with emancipatory potential’. [here Carissa quotes Banu Bargu’s ‘The Politics of Commensality’] Crucially, commensality can forge bonds that do not depend on shared or fixed identities, or ‘sameness’ in any other respect than shared needs for food and company. It is a practical expression of kinship and companionship and a visceral experience of trust and intimacy, upon which bonds are built.”
And Carissa should know. She is one of the directors of Sheffield’s wonderful Foodhall project. The current Foodhall is housed in a building close to Sheffield train station (so go bloody visit!). It has a kitchen, social and workshop spaces, a courtyard, shopfront and pavement area which combine to offer ‘a place where everyone can come together to share food, drink company, skills and time’. Foodhall intercepts food waste streams from local traders so that they can serve hot meals a minimum of three times a week. But this is just the core of Foodhall’s offer. They also offer a platform for community members to pursue their own interests and share their skills with others. This has given rise to things like bike repair classes, DJ nights, pottery workshops and cinema screenings. We found that the same kind of diverse, peer-led projects emerged when we opened up Bentley Urban Farm (BUF) to the public and community groups. There is no shortage of ideas or abilities, just a shortage of spaces which allow things to happen organically.
While I was visiting the Foodhall kitchen I met Alan, an elder citizen with a history of mental health problems. When he found out that I was an urban farmer he offered me some amazing tips for seed-saving from supermarket-bought tomatoes and growing them to maturity in your bathroom. In more traditional, hierarchically bureaucratic institutions, people like Alan are treated like ‘victims’ or ‘clients’ — worse still as bloody ‘consumers’. Whereas in more horizontalist, self-organised, peer-led projects this distinction is simply irrelevant. The actions, abilities, ideas, thoughts and feelings of each individual are mutually beneficial to the community as a whole. In fact, such spaces have a special feel to them because they have been shaped by a wide diversity of people, each bringing something special to the equation.
Foodhall is currently housed in a beautiful building which could have been purpose built for their needs, but their future is uncertain because they have to pay rent. In a country like the UK, where there is such inequality in land and property ownership and access, finding a space can be a real obstacle. Space is everything. An open door to a space open to ideas — with an everybody welcome, everybody equal policy — is a formula for real transformation. But how we do this without being pulled away from our own goals in order to satisfy the narrow remits of traditional funding institutions is currently a bit of an issue.
An obvious solution is squatting. Both France’s ZAD (zone à défendre) encampments and London’s Grow Heathrow have been highly effective at showing people exactly what self-organised green-spaces can offer local communities. But the fact that they are born of protest makes them both vulnerable and, to some degree, hinders the kind of open-door policy which we need in order to create an everyday anarchism capable of lasting change (more on this in another post). Long-term projects born of squatting, such as Denmark’s Freetown Christiania or Spain’s Marinaleda are harder to establish in the current climate (although definitely not impossible… hint, hint) and, as the history of Christiania shows, it is extremely difficult not to be dragged back into the sphere of the dominant state’s power structures and/or down capitalism’s economic rabbit hole. But sometimes the leviathan-esque nature of state bureaucracy does provide opportunity to birth anarchist/anarchy-friendly initiatives within the forgotten spaces of state and capital; a situation which offers the same sweet poetry as that of dandelions and daisies growing up through the cracks of city pavements.
Bolton Diggers is one such project. In 2016 they managed to secure a section of a council allotment plot in Bolton, Lancashire which had been largely abandoned because of its boggy ground. They offered a collective space for people to come together to grow food and build alternatives to the status quo. Not only have they brought forth crops from marginal land, they have brought forth a range of beneficial community projects for Bolton, such as Bolton Mutual Aid and Bolton Urban Growers. BUF itself was founded the same year as Bolton Diggers. The opportunity presented itself to us because a lack of available funding meant that a former council-run horticultural training centre had sat empty for over half a decade. Years of austerity measures have sadly deepened the need for food growing projects like Bolton Diggers and Bentley Urban Farm, but they have also created an environment where local authorities are unable to maintain vital community assets. Which gives grassroots, self-organised groups some leverage when it comes to taking over council-run plots of land… if you can access them before your council assets department sells them off.
Is it hard work getting local authorities to relinquish control of community assets even though those assets are supposedly there for the benefit of the community in the first place? In too many places, yes it is. But it is absolutely worth the effort. Is it an easy alliance to maintain? Let’s just say that my capacity for anarcho-pragmatism has indeed been tested over the years. But none of this should stop anarchists organising to find places to grow food for themselves and their community wherever they may live.
One exciting recent development is the new plot of land secured in Camden by Cooperation Town. The story of the incredible growth of the Cooperation Town initiative has already been documented in Freedom here and here, and this land will offer a new and exciting phase. Inspired by Cooperation Jackson, Cooperation Town UK teach communities how to effectively organise in order to collectively buy and distribute their own food. I mentioned earlier a desire to close the loop in the production and distribution of affordable (where possible, free…) and healthy food; Cooperation Town is one initiative which has come very close to these ends. They work with local authorities and traditional funders, but they are very open in their wish to make the roles of funders, charities and state bureaucracies obsolete through the education and empowerment of communities.
The aspirations of Cooperation Jackson go well beyond food provision. Their long term vision is to develop a cooperative network that will consist of four interconnected elements; a federation of local worker cooperatives, an incubator for coops, a cooperative education and training centre, and a cooperative bank or financial institution. What a vision. Surely it is one we all share? I truly believe that commensality and food provision has the power to unite us (whoever we are and wherever we may be) in a quest for the same ends. In fact, I have proof…
At a recent meeting of the Doncaster People’s Assembly, a large percentage of the members decided that waving placards was not enough when it came to protesting the emerging cost of living crisis. It was proposed that they try a new tactic. One which provided food in a convivial environment without stigma, bureaucracy or judgement. There were, of course, some crusty, old-guard types who said that this is not what Doncaster People’s Assembly does. So a collection of socialists, greens, anarchists, Labourites, communists and community activists (talk about the uniting power of food!) said ‘fair enough’ and set up Doncaster Engagement Network (DEN) instead.
DEN’s response to the cost of living crisis is simply to create warm spaces where we (‘we’ as in absolutely anyone…) can cook together, eat together, enjoy some music and each other’s company (music + food + people = party). Local food waste project, Food Aware, will provide the food for free and meals will be sold on a Pay As You Feel (PAYF) basis in the hope of raising enough funds to tour the project around Doncaster’s many satellite towns. No alienating forms, no economic (or any other…) segregation, just an open door and a string of possibilities. The project launches on May 7th and I will keep you informed about its progress, because if we can pull this off in a place like Doncaster, there’s no reason anyone else — anywhere else — cannot try something similar.
Work with each other. Plan and deliver the next nine meals for your community on anarchist principles. To paraphrase a sexist old quote: “The way to a community’s heart is through its stomach.” Lunch is liberation. Supper is solidarity. Another dinner is possible!
And if we fail? Well, there’s always Jackson, Mississippi.