Food Riots



Crystal Bartolovich, 2010. “A Natural History Of ‘Food Riots’”, in New Formations.

We’re inclined to read carefully any article that quotes (approvingly!) some of our favourite philosopher-writers – Karl Marx, Jacques Ranciere and Raj Patel; and some of our favourite militants – from Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of 17th century England, to S’bu Zikode and Abahlali baseMjondolo of 21st century South Africa!

For Bartolovich, food riots around the world raise the question of the limits of the market as a mechanism to distribute anything important and basic like food in a very concrete and eloquent way. She insists that this resistance-from-below is, in itself, an important mode of critique of current neoliberal capitalism – they are not just bodily expressions of spontaneous rage “requiring post-hoc theorisation by recognised intellectuals”. She understands these actions as signaling not just a refusal of the conditions of suffering, but a conscious and collective political praxis against its (global) causes: “Far from being mindless local expressions of the stomach, food rebellions are instead a profound – global – politics, not least because … if the demands of food rioters were met in any meaningful sense, the whole world would have to be changed”.

In this paper, Bartolovich presents an important critique of the “tragedy of the commons” trope. Instead she proposes the “tragedy of the private” which, it turns out, fits the facts a whole lot more meaningfully than the reactionary fiction it responds to. Certainly the force-able advance of private interests over common spaces and practices is deeply implicated in any explanation of the conditions that induce food riots the world over. Advocating against this neoliberal trope, Bartolovich is nonetheless clear that “I am not proposing regression- a going back to the ‘traditional’ commons, which were not sites of equality”. What she proposes is a new and radical commons, at least partly emergent in these current struggles from below and in the global South. Indeed, Bartolovich also critiques a certain northern tendency to radical-sounding ‘localisms’ that, while apparently advocating revolutionary withdrawal from capitalist modes of being and exchange, actually fail to take into account “the planetary consequences of all ‘local’ choices”. She contrasts these with food riots because the latter enact a sense of ‘global natural history’ and inscribe a critique of the global and systemic factors that re-produce fundamental unfairness. They call into question the whole of the systems globally and the entire way of life of the global North in very real and concrete terms.

“Food riots and other resource rebellions in the South, then, insist that we remember that our reliance on common planetary resources is global.

Today, participants in urban squatter resistance movements, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, similarly ask why they must eat, wear, and build their shacks with the cast-offs and detritus of other, more privileged, people’s lives, while they see luxury and abundance for a few, along with stadiums, airports, roads, waterfront developments, rising up all around them? Resources are always plentiful, it seems, until they make a claim on them.”

Crystal Bartolovich is Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University and, with Neil Lazarus, also edited an earlier collection of essays Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies.

Bartolovich food riots

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