Raj Patel Talks Social Theory, Our Global Future
Raj Patel is an internationally renowned author and activist. He currently co-teaches at UC Berkeley with Michael Pollan and has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. His first book was “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System” and his latest, “The Value of Nothing,” is a New York Times best-seller. He is currently working on a documentary about the global food system called “Generation Food Project” with award-winning director Steve James. On Thursday, Feb. 20, Patel spoke at NMU, presenting a lecture entitled, “Feeding 10 Billion People Sustainably.” Afterward, Mary Wardell and Michael Williams of the North Wind sat down with Patel over a few beers and got real about capitalism, Marxism, anarchism, optimism, Occupy and preaching to the choir.
NW: What drew you to the United States from Britain?
RP: For me, growing up in Britain in the 70’s and ‘80s–one of the reasons I left is because Britain is a very racist society. That’s not to say the U.S. is not a racist society, because we know it is. But it’s a society where, when the racism happens, there’s a word for it, and it’s “racism.” Whereas, in Britain, it’s very hard to talk in the British media or to find people who are standing up to say ‘this is bullshit.’
And the history of the civil rights movement here matters for all people of color. To be able to say that ‘racism happens here’ is itself a victory that many countries aren’t comfortable with. So that’s one of the reasons I came here.
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To be able to say that ‘racism happens here’ is itself a victory that many countries aren’t comfortable with.
And also there’s no way I can make a living in Britain doing what I do, which is being a provocateur in the food system, and challenging people to think internationally about the food system and in some sense provoke change in terms of international capitalism. So here I can stitch a life together, and it’s not a bad one. And there’s really no job description there. That’s why I ended up here.
NW: Are you optimistic about shifting the corporate structure and people’s mentalities about the food system? Do you ever feel like you’re preaching to the choir?
RP: I think it’s very much about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. You can’t delude yourself about how the world is today. We live in a world controlled by large corporations and governments turning it into a mess, and at the same time, one of the reasons we’re doing this film is because there are solutions happening all over the place, and sometimes at a state level, which is kind of interesting. So that’s why this story is one that we’re keen on following through.
And that’s why we’re making this movie, and why we’re making it where we’re making it. Because I do feel that occasionally there will be somebody that comes into the room and says, ‘Well what about free markets, what about this that and the other,’ and then we can have a good conversation about that, but for people who are not inclined to go to a Marxist film about the food system, you don’t have to. What you can go to is a film about some incredible people who really kick ass and who you really care about. And stories you want to know about.
We’re already thinking toward months from now about who we’ll be able to talk to that’s not in the choir. The people who are not in the choir are definitely the people we have to talk to.
NW: What made you decide to do a documentary?
RP: The reason I’m working on this film is because I started off doing things for the UN and found it frustrating. Then I did a Ph.D., worked with Food First, which is a terrific nonprofit working towards ending hunger, where I wrote policy debriefs that literally dozens of people read. It was a lot like working in the academy, where the average number of people who read an academic paper is seven. So it’s not like you’re making waves. And this is not about ego, this is about shit people should know. There’s stuff here that matters and I don’t care who writes it, but someone needs to be saying this stuff.
There’s stuff here that matters and I don’t care who writes it, but someone needs to be saying this stuff.
So that’s why I did “Stuffed and starved.” Because people like Eric Schlosser had kicked ass talking about labor and the food system in the U.S. and Michael Pollan’s done important work in getting conversations going. So there’s been some interesting stuff, but in terms of the international food system, no one had written that book, a book I would have loved to have not written. But that’s why I did “Stuffed and Starved.”
And now I’m finding, yeah, books are great, but if you talk to most people, you know, most people don’t read, and that’s just kind of the way it is. And a documentary can reach millions of people, whereas a book is lucky to reach hundreds of thousands. So that’s why we’re doing the film. Steve’s interested in the subject and I’m interested in getting people interested in a radical analysis of the food system–that isn’t about talking heads saying, ‘Oh here’s capitalism, here’s this that and the other,’ but instead, by not having me in it all, but having these really amazing characters tell it.
NW: Do you plan to go back and show the film to the people in it?
RP: Oh, hell yeah. Before final cut. Yeah, we have to. We must, because otherwise we’re guilty of just doing what other documentarians have done: go in, extract the story and go home. We’ve seen that before. And also, it’s just good social science, because otherwise how would you know if you’ve got it wrong, in terms of a way of getting to truth?
NW: What happens if you go back and the people say ‘you’ve got it all wrong,’ or ‘I don’t like the way you’re portraying me’?
RP: Well we don’t make a solemn promise to absolutely abide by what people say, but the idea is if there’s something that we just haven’t thought about in terms of it’s consequences or something that is untrue, it goes. But if it’s something that’s true and we can argue for it, then we’ll argue for it. [In past films] there have been things that [Steve]’s cut, because he said ‘Well, they’re right, it’s causing more suffering and it’s not helping the story,’ and while it reveals a truth, it also reveals an untruth, and there’s nothing cool about that. So I hope this isn’t the first film where he’s like, ‘No it has to stay in, those people are wrong.’
But he is honest and tough about the truth. And that’s something other people can learn from; it’s certainly what I’m learning from him. And he’s tough on himself as well in his movies. He did a documentary about how he was a big brother to a guy who ended up being a child molester. And it was a really tough film, both on him and on the guy.
That toughness is something that’s important in social change as well, because it’s not easy. You’re making yourself raw and then you have to take the lashes, but that’s okay. The documentary’s called “Stevie” and it’s really–it’s on Netflix–it’s really really good.
NW: Talk about your history working for the World Bank and other international organizations.
RP: I was tear gassed protesting the World Bank before I worked for the World Bank.
But so I worked at the World Bank because I was given this plum project. My adviser when I was a graduate student, my economics professor, was doing a huge project for them for the year 2000. Every year that ends in a zero the World Bank produces a huge compendium of all it understands about all kinds of things.
And my [economics] professor at the time, he hired me to go through all the bank’s confidential literature to do a critique of the World Bank. And I was like, f–k yeah I’ll do that–I mean confidential anything! But it turns out that it was really incredibly dull: consultant reports. We read several hundred, possibly several thousand between us, coding for a mass of different things.
People are poor, and they’re not very happy about being poor; they’re often insulted by the governments meant to take care of them; they don’t like the police; and they don’t like the World Bank.
And by the time we got to the end of it, we had this fantastic set of data that said, well: people are poor, and they’re not very happy about being poor; they’re often insulted by the governments meant to take care of them; they don’t like the police; and they don’t like the World Bank. And then the person who was in charge of turning this raw data into a report said, ‘Yeah, tell me more about the police.’ And all of the stuff about the World Bank got ripped out. And all of the reflexive stuff, about the way the World Bank’s internal documents impeach the World Bank, all of that went. And it became a celebration of what the World Bank did.
So at last, this was published as “Voices of the Poor: Can anyone hear us?” The last line was a direct quote from the consultant report, ‘And so we drove into the desert as the sun set on the savannah; spontaneously the women jumped up from the fire and started singing, “Here is the World Bank, here is the World Bank, they are here to develop us! We hope they won’t forget us!”’
So I resigned, but my supervisor resigned before I did, in fact. That was the experience.
I interned at the World Trade Organization (WTO), and they had a project for me to do, which was answer this question: does trade hurt the environment?
It’s an interesting question, and at first, the answer’s obviously yes, because you’re producing more stuff, with transportation, so the mere act of producing more stuff and transporting it creates more pollution.
‘Ah,’ they said, ‘but there‘s something else called the “Kuznet’s curve.”’ So he said look at the way pollution works in rich countries. Britain started out with no pollution and no industry, and then, loads of pollution and loads of industry. Then people got rich and at a certain point, they’re like, ‘f–k this pollution, I’m done.’ And so the pollution started going down. So the WTO started saying, ‘Well, surely what we’re doing is hastening the arrival of the environmental Kuznet’s curve!’ And that’s true, you can’t dispute that British pollution and U.S. pollution has all followed this curve. But yes, it’s because they’ve outsourced it all.
NW: There’s an anathema around philosophies like socialism and anarchism; why do we as a nation seem to take this capitalistic disposition toward economic issues?
RP: First of all, I want to point out that the word capitalism is itself a very strange word in the English language. It is both celebrated, but it’s also like saying “vagina” in public. People say vagina more often than they say capitalism. Vagina–it’s anatomically correct, it’s fantastic, people seem to like it, but the minute you say the word, it’s like you farted in a lift. It’s the wrong thing to say, whatever it is. But if you love it so much, why not say it?
This is not to argue for the “capitalism monologues” because we get those every day. But what’s interesting is just to say the word is already strange and unusual, which is a sign of something not healthy in a society that celebrates this particular arrangement. It’s not a dirty word; it’s better than everything, but you can’t say it.
I’ve had lots of experiences where I’ve been in countries where people will talk about politics and religion at dinner, because what else would you talk about? These are important subjects that matter to us all, and politics and religion should be talked about at the dinner table. Of course, in the U.S. you have the opposite, where politics and religion are both utterly private and therefore unimpeachable, and almost as innate as a kind of favorite ice cream flavor. So there’s no point talking about it, because you’re not going to persuade anyone that, actually, what they really want is vanilla.
It seems to me that the individualization of America comes with a transformation of “politics as preference,” rather than politics as the result of rational deliberation.
And that’s to remove politics and religion from the realm of reason, and you might say religion is already removed from the realm of reason, but still, there are things to talk about. In politics, the divorce of politics and reason is evinced by the quality of dialogue that we have in the United States, and it seems to me that the individualization of America comes with that transformation of “politics as preference,” rather than politics as the result of rational deliberation. And at that point, you can’t talk about capitalism because to say the word is already to provoke a conversation about the latter half, and that’s why it’s uncomfortable. It’s like talking about your genitals.
NW: Are you an anarchist?
RP: Kind of? Deep sympathies. But I think there’s a brand of anarchism that often steps into the mainstream that stands for anarchism, but is actually a strange hyper-individualism. And strange hyper-individualism is not me. That’s why I rail on Ayn Rand so much, because her particular brand of anarchism is poisonous. So that’s not where I’m at.
I’m suspicious of the state and I’m suspicious of large corporations. And recently we’ve been given ample opportunity to have those suspicions vindicated, but I think there are reasons to be interested in a state that does what people want it to do. And I think there are reasons to find the withering away of the state and all of us getting along just fine, and a communist ideal also quite interesting. So that’s why “kind of” is the closest I’ll be drawn.
I think there’s a lot of value in some post-capitalist traditions, whether that’s communism or socialism or anarchism. One thing I’m not is a capitalist. I’m happy enough to exist in capitalism, I just don’t think it’s a good idea. But in the same way, I don’t think that patriarchy is a good idea and I’m in a patriarchal land, but I don’t like it. I try to do less of it as time goes on. And I think maybe that’s the right analogy between me and capitalism.
For me, the one thing I’m coming to realize is [the need for] some underlying theory about how the world works. That’s why I think Marxism is so relevant today. The beauty of Marxism is that it helps us explain the world. It helps us explain where we are, and a great deal about the world around us, in a way that seems to lift the scales from one’s eyes.
Now, what you do with that analysis is a separate question. But you need to have something sensible to say about the state, which is why I think socialism has something to offer here. But whatever your analysis, your conclusion, it has to be based on some rigorous analysis. The Tea Party has none, and it seems to me what radical left groups have is a way of telling a story that ties things together. And I don’t think there [are] enough stories out there for us to have that sort of unified approach.
NW: Is socialism the answer, in your opinion? Would it work?
RP: I think it needs to be paired with a suspicion of the state. I certainly think theories of change that involve pushing a vanguard of trained revolutionaries is a little arrogant. There are very few people alive who understand a theory of revolution even in a 19th century sense and we don’t live in the 19th century.
But I also appreciate the fact that there are people who understand the system that we live in needs something fairly transformative to happen. And transformative things have only happened when we’ve come across– not sort of piecemeal tweaks, but piecemeal tweaks plus revolutionary theory.
Transformative things have only happened when we’ve come across– not sort of piecemeal tweaks, but piecemeal tweaks plus revolutionary theory.
So the example I give is this group in Oakland that fed many people, they were feeding more people than the state of California, and that group was the Black Panthers. And what’s nice about that theory is that you could understand the Black Panthers on one hand as an archipelago of food banks: people who are very nice who go around collecting food donations and giving it to the hungry.
Now, if [they] were people with ministerial churches and a ray of light coming out their collars, then that would be one thing. But because they have shotguns and because these programs are survival programs pending revolution, then the state has to repress them. But the state had to then fully fund its food banks and its school lunch programs, and that’s one thing that happened as a result of the Black Panther food programs.
NW: How do you combat tendencies toward reinforcing capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy? How do you implement these values in your own life?
RP: I think it’s a vital question. Often people want to go it alone because often there aren’t that many people around who hold similar ideas. But then, all you’re doing is therapy. And to some extent, patriarchy is a psychic place where all men exist, but the way out of that is not, it seems to me, an individual one-on-one with a shrink. But it is through collective action and collective holding to account.
So the way I try to live these desires and hopes, however imperfectly, is to try to make myself accountable to movements, and to people to whom I want to be accountable and with whom I want to be in community and solidarity. That’s also how I try to do my social scientific work, and why we’re doing this filmmaking.
You hold yourself to account. And that’s the hard bit because often in the academy and in our personal life, we’re being therapized into an individualistic approach to solving everything and I think that’s not the answer. I think the opposite’s the answer. That also explains why I’m working with Steve, and also why what we’re challenged with in this film is holding ourselves accountable to the people we’re working with.
NW: Talk about Occupy, the corresponding-but-opposite Tea Party, and have we become complacent again?
RP: There are interestingly legitimate grievances that the Tea Party has. Strip away the racism, which is possible to do, because in some areas particularly in the South, that’s a factor no matter what kind of politics you’re talking about. But it’s possible to understand a class grievance, that government is only working for backers and the rich, that’s common in some of the Tea Party grievances and more radical interpretations of what’s going on. So the difference seems to me to be an absence of a theory about why the world is the way it is. Which is why I’m pleased so many young people are so interested in socialism, because that genuinely does offer a theory on why we live in the world we live in, rather than the kind of the fairy tales of John Galt and Ayn Rand, which a lot of people believe.
One of the nice things is I get a sense people are getting more and more pissed off about these corporations, you know even though the kind of summer of Occupy seems to be over, there are places where Occupy flourishes.
Occupy Sandy is alive and well [in New York] so those links of mutual aid and support are doing quite well. And sadly, they’re still necessary. Occupy Our Homes in, I believe it’s Minneapolis, is also doing well and they’re also doing really cool stuff.
One of the nice things is I get a sense people are getting more and more pissed off about corporations.
There are sort of threads of the Occupy movement that are still in the light. But I do think that now is also the time for the kind of patient work and organizing that a lot of people in Occupy weren’t able to do because Occupy in many places ended up becoming social services, taking care of the homeless, which is important.
And a lot of people learned about the fallout of capitalism and capitalism’s discarded people through having to tend to them and look after people with mental health issues. But the sort of patient work of building class consciousness is, it seems to me, still going.
There’s a group called the Wildfire Project. Yotam Marom, who was involved in Occupy New York–look out for him; he’s absolutely awesome. He’s a really good guy and a fantastic organizer. He’s been working with a lot of groups in the States that are actually validly socialists and anarchists to actually spread some of these ideas. And so in that way, Occupy has already made a substantive contribution in 2011, by making the idea of inequality one that you could talk about. And all of a sudden, just today to have chained CPI pulled out of the social security reform–that wouldn’t have happened if we’d not had Occupy, frankly.
So there are discussions around inequality and justice that Occupy made okay, and are still relevant, and are still continuing to make okay. Occupy is underground in some ways because the work of talking about class is tough work in this intellectual climate where you’re not really allowed to talk about class.
But I think normal people are okay with saying, ‘There’s something different between these people and me, because these people have access to the means of production or they’re rich–they’re able to afford a house–and me who is trying to teach their children, but I can’t afford to live in their town.’ And that kind of distinction, more and more people are awake to it.