Why Make Exploitation Easy?

October 12, 2014

Whenever either of my regular readers sees that I end the Thornapple blog with a question like I did last week, they halfway expect me to come back and answer the question in the next blog. Or maybe that’s going a little far. It’s not like we ever answer very many questions here. But maybe it signals that there’s more to come.

So of course my lefty friends are steaming about the flippancy with which we dismissed the food industry’s ability to turn resistance to its advantage last week. And when I say, “Am I missing something?” they are right there with “Of course, you dolt! You’re missing the systemic nature of this distortion and it’s grounding in the power relationships that structure a capitalist food system.”

Now I must confess that I’m strongly inclined to go off on a tangent on how pleasing it is to write a blog where you get to use the word “dolt”, or perhaps riffing on its 16th century origins. That would take me back to the bread riots in England, where villagers were protesting what they took to be exorbitant increases in the price of grain. They were missing something, too. The usual reason for a good old fashioned peasant riot owed to an unexpected and unjustified exertion of manorial power. Like the landlord showing up with a giant-size basket to collect his share of the crop, and then showing up with peasant sized baskets when it was time to dispense alms for the poor. It reminds me of my daughter Dory’s outsized Christmas stocking, save for the fact that Santa was wise to this trick, and not vulnerable to the power exerted by 16th century landlords.

But unlike the usual outrage perpetrated by landlords, the bread riots were due to what we today would blithely call a “market-based” rise in the cost of grain. It seems that there were some key elements of trade even in the manorial system, and what the peasants did with their own share of a crop after filling the landlord’s basket was one of them. In the old days, they had been confined pretty much to the local village marketplace—often a single miller and baker. This was mainly because the roads were so bad that they simply couldn’t take a heavy load of grain someplace else. But better roads and canals coming along in the 16th century made it possible to haul grain to the next village in search of a better price. And with that kind of flexibility, prices might go up. Sometimes by a lot.

It took a while, but it gradually began to dawn on people that their outrage needed to be diverted from their landlords (who were, it must be admitted, quite capable of exploiting the new system to their advantage, even if there was some plausible story suggesting that they weren’t responsible for the soaring price of food) and toward “the system,” “the marketplace” “the merchants” and hence toward capitalism as a vague generic Dark Tower that needed to be overthrown on moral grounds. So I guess this isn’t as much of a tangent as I thought.

I guess I should confess that as a college professor I don’t necessarily define my role in life as one of creating a general consciousness of system abuses among my undergraduates. Nor do I presume that I should be encouraging them to define their role as one of resistance to the injustice inherent in the system. It’s not because I don’t see the injustice in the system, mind you. I just expect that a goodly portion of the smiling faces out there are anxious to take their place in that system. So teaching them how any form of resistance can be turned to benefit the powers-that-be is just making it too easy for them. If that makes me a dolt, so be it.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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