Reviewing 'Food Worth Fighting For' by Josh Sutton
by Niall Walker
"What happened to the end of history? Our complacent appetites are confronting the unappetising reality which only a fortnight ago seemed inconceivable."
At first, I laughed. COVID-19, an obscure irritation clogging up my news feed, suddenly became a reality on a post-work trip to Morrisons.
Shelves emptied of bog roll; the novelty of seeing nothing where usually there is unlimited selection. So I did what our generation always does in the face of novelty: I took this picture, cast judgement on those I’ve never met, and laughed.
The free market's invisible hand rarely tickles our desires more convincingly than in a supermarket. Their aisles are cornucopias of produce, drawn from every culture, ecosystem and food chain on earth. You can buy anything in a supermarket; or so it seemed. Now, you can’t even buy potatoes.
What happened to the end of history? Our acquisitive appetites are confronting the unappetising reality which only a fortnight ago seemed incomprehensible. Food shortages remained a symptom of poverty, yes, but surely not of production, in first world countries at least. It is excess, not deficit, that defined the vices of our food systems; of cosumer complacency, not - surely not - the social unease, even the riotous panic of a lack of sustenance. As Josh Sutton, author of Food Worth Fighting For, remarked only 4 years ago, ‘If the market squares of town and villages were the scene of food riots in previous centuries, it is almost impossible to envisage such events taking place today’.
Riot on Aisle 4
Responsibility for the current shortages has so far been placed firmly at the feet of hoarders. The supermarkets, by contrast, have been characterised as valiant defenders of a need for order, ‘feeding the nation’ while warding off the excesses of a frightened population.
It is worth noting, then, just how disingenuous this portrayal is. Few industries are as representative of our social gluttony as supermarkets, who send over 1.9 million tonnes of food to landfill every year’, reject produce that fail their cosmetic standards, and exploit an increasingly globalised market to pitch farmer against farmer, driving down both cost and quality. Brands like Tescos and Sainsburys, once local, co-operative enterprises, now make up a food industrial complex, where exploitation is packaged as choice.
Josh Sutton’s Food Worth Fighting For narrates a history of food protest which starts in the hungry bellies of 18th century peasants, and ends in the 21st century’s hypermarkets and food banks. His argument is a compelling - if contentious - suggestion that the rioters of Early Modern England have kindred spirits in the volunteers and campaigners fighting today's battle for Food Security.
Central to his thesis is the belief that our understanding of a riot has been ‘hijacked by modernity’. Our image of burning streets, smashed windows and masked gangs, drawn from memories of London in 2011, or the Gilets Jaunes movement in France, warp the definition of a word which, 200 years ago, encompassed far more diverse forms of rebellion.
Take the grain riots which swept southern England in 1766, one of over 700 food riots Sutton calculates happened in Britain between the years 1550-1820:
‘Grain seized from merchants and millers was brought to the market and distributed at an affordable price. In many cases, the carts and sacks used for transporting the grain were returned to the rightful owners, together with the revenue raised from the sale’.
As Sutton points out, ‘the connotations of rioting went far beyond mere lawbreaking, and opened up possibilities for celebration and revelry’. Our reimagining of the term is a result of concerted efforts by the establishment to demonise all forms of popular disobedience.
This is nowhere more evident than in the infamous Riot Act of 1714. Legislated to quell the increasing number of riots - both food-related and otherwise - spreading across rural England, it defined the state’s relationship to protest for over 250 years. Local authorities were allowed to forcibly break up any gathering of 12 or more, and offenders could face criminal charges for not cooperating.
Subsequently, the term became synonymous not just with destruction of property, but of any collective action which deviated from the law. ‘Markets in the eighteenth century served in a way as political arenas’, Sutton observes, where ‘Members of the public would gather and fix the prices of bread and corn themselves’. As the century progressed, farmers empowered by Britain’s emerging commercial interests, supported by increasingly draconian law enforcement, ensured such instances of localised participatory price controlling was marginalised.
The conquest of bread
In this context, Food Worth Fighting For’s bridging of these rural forums and modern day food banks, food-cycling initiatives and soup kitchens, is compelling.
Sutton is a keen scholar, with a strong diversity of sources that bring rural societies and their people to life. Ballads and folk songs are as commonly drawn on as legal documents and eminent historians, and he is discerning enough not to overly romanticise either the rioters of the 18th century, or their modern day equivalents.
Where the capacity for food rioting was once legislated against, after all, today's food banks are a product of an Etonian fantasy of the 'Big Society' picking up the tab for state neglect. Sutton does not seek to diminish the efforts of thousands of volunteers and activists across the country, but to warn of a society which relies on philanthropy rather than structural protection to feed its poor.
In the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, thousands of mutual aid groups emerged across the country, aiming to provide food, medicine and support to the vulnerable in quarantine. Food activism - rioting, if you accept the arguments put forward by Sutton - is alive and well. Yet if this crisis continues for many more months, then charity will become inadequate: we need to demand a wholesale re-evaluation of how our food is produced, and how the industry operates, if we are to avoid this situation happening again.
Food Worth Fighting For, by Josh Sutton, is available from Prospect Books. Buy it here.We also encourage you to get involved with your local Mutual Aid group. Search for them on Facebook, or get in touch with us and we will help you to find them.
Niall Walker is the Founder and Co-Editor of the Radical Art Review. Reach him via radicalartreview [at] gmail [dot] com.