Raj Patel on The Dinner Table After The Revolution
Transcript February 17, 2020
[edited for clarity]
Laborwave Radio and Opening Space for the Radical Imagination present a podcast mini-series, After The Revolution.
Works referenced and links at the end of the transcript.
After the Revolution is inspired by the desire to offer more than a diagnosis of what is wrong with today by focusing on what we might be able to bring about instead. Each episode within this series will begin by highlighting the importance of considering one particular feature of society, then imagining what it might look like after the revolution, and finally offering some ideas on how we get to this revolutionary society.
Our first episode is The Dinner Table After the Revolution featuring Raj Patel, writer, activist, and academic who has authored the books Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System; The Value of Nothing; and The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things with co-author Jason W. Moore.
“The idea that you have in your mind when you hear “dinner table,” whether it’s around mommy and daddy and two kids or around a small group affair, is itself a product of our times. If one imagines a future after the revolution it’s not just the size of the dinner table or the labor that goes into the food that appears on the dinner table, it’s the whole string of commodities and relationships of power that go into thinking about who’s there, and who’s labor is there, and what nature and capital flows through this dinner table in a way that’s emancipatory where capitalism of course now is not.”
Laborwave: Why does it matter to think about the dinner table?
Raj Patel: Because the dinner table is both a site of production and reproduction. It is a site that brings together all that is wrong with capitalism and that is right with what might come after, because it is a space that is often about love, about sharing, about creativity, and joy and pleasure. The more people around that table, then the more of those things there are. If one is imagining a future that isn’t a segregated, individualized, and atomized world then the dinner table might be a site for struggle in that regard.
The dinner table as we understand at the moment is a confection of capitalism as well. It’s one of these sites and geographies that’s been made by capitalism. The whole idea of individual households cooking individuals things by themselves takes work to become normal. You see this in the compulsory manuals around households that are distributed in seventeenth-century England. You see the invention of the household, perhaps not as compulsory, but as one of these things that is forced by the architecture of modern life happening across the world.
One of my favorite recent books is called The Weight of Obesity. It’s set in Guatemala, and is an anthropological investigation about how the communal cooking areas in which, usually women, in communities will get together and cook meals that take forever to make because they’re using scratch ingredients which take a while to process, so the process of cooking is a communal affair. By the end of it women cook together, and families eat together at the end of the day. What you see is a transformation away from that communal approach to the dinner table to a dinner table that becomes much smaller. Because it’s much smaller women are being exploited more, because patriarchy is there under capitalism and whatever precedes capitalism where the duties are often ascribed to women around reproductive labor and cooking mean that women are buying convenience food, and are buying for example processed food. This is because by day they are working in fields where they see the pesticides that are used on fruits and vegetables so they think that by avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables it somehow neutralizes these horrible contaminants. Then we move into a world of processed foods and microwave meals, in which the dinner table is still provided by women’s labor but it’s just now a couple of people eating incredibly processed food as opposed to the broader context of communities eating, cooking, and cleaning up together.
So, the idea that you have in your mind when you hear “dinner table,” whether it’s around mommy and daddy and two kids or around a small group affair is itself a product of our times. If one imagines a future after the revolution it’s not just the size of the dinner table or the labor that goes into the food that appears on the dinner table, it’s the whole string of commodities and relationships of power that go into thinking about who’s there, and who’s labor is there, and what nature and capital flows through this dinner table in a way that’s emancipatory where capitalism of course now is not.
LW: Thinking about a society that is based on collective liberation, we could say a post-revolutionary society in whatever way revolution might mean to you, what in that circumstance does the dinner table look like? Because as you say the concept of the dinner table is produced by capitalism, so for you what does the dinner table look like after the revolution?
RP: I think that no matter where you are and when you are the dinner table will have more people around it. I think that if one imagines what it is that prevents more people eating together at the moment it is this process of individuation, but for most of us who are not able to eat at restaurants every day and find ourselves constrained by time, resources, and the limited bandwidth we have available to be together. After the revolution I think that food and pleasure and sensuality of food becomes more democratized, and that pleasure becomes more accessible to everyone. One of the most effective ways of doing that is by people cooking and eating together much more often.
If one imagines not a small table, but groups where people are cooking and eating and sharing food together that’s certainly one way in which I imagine food in the future being eaten and the labor around it being shared in ways that are fair and sustaining of community.
But I also think it matters around where and when you are. If you’re in central Texas, in which I am, this time of year there are going to be very different things on the table than there will be in Toronto or rural Iowa. Different times of year call for different kinds of relationships for food that is available. This isn’t to say that there won’t be trade or exchange, but I can imagine a world where the kind of tropical foods that currently feature on American tables might not be so abundant. It’s hard to imagine a world without long lines of coffee and without bananas running hot, cold, and on-tap, but it’s okay if in the future less of the world is carved up and mandated to be the providers of coffee beans and bananas and chocolate so that people in rich parts of the world can profit. I think it’s not like these things won’t exist anymore, but I think there will be less of them and they’ll be divided much more fairly.
LW: The implications of what you’re discussing about the size of the dinner table makes me wonder what the nuclear family looks like in your vision of the future after the revolution? Is the nuclear family going to reconfigure, change, and expand or are we going to be bound by those sorts of familial units at all?
RP: There is a heteronormative stricture around the idea of the nuclear family that emerges very much at the same time as capitalism’s demand for free reproductive labor provided by women, which circumscribes the kinds of things that count as “women’s work,” excluding women from the medical field and educational field to ensure that patriarchy rules in the home, and men are as kings in the home as kings are to men outside it.
That kind of thinking around the nuclear family I think can change, and even under capitalism we’re seeing certain kinds of breaks with that in some of the ideas around civil rights around gay unions. But that’s not nearly enough. Merely to diversify the number of people that can be in a nuclear family, or the sexes of people who can be in a nuclear family, is not the same as busting apart the idea of a nuclear family.
I do think that part of the idea of what a post-capitalist society might look like starts to bleed those boundaries away again, and thinks in a way that’s intentional as opposed to patriarchal. There’s lots of examples of patriarchal families that are extended in which lots of people do lots of different kinds of parenting, but these are still presided over in ways that are not emancipatory but are patriarchal. But I can imagine in a post-capitalist society that the way we think of dividing reproductive labor is much more equitable and shared across communities as opposed to in the hands of an individual.
LW: I also hope that you can speak a little bit more to what you were saying about the mandates surrounding global trade that provide bananas year-round, or other tropical fruits that are not seasonal. In your imagination after the revolution what does trade and exchange of foods look like, and how would it have to be in order for it to be in a liberatory fashion?
RP: There’s so much that would have to happen in order for us to have bananas that are untainted by the long history of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism that currently find their way into the Cavendish banana. A short glance at the history of the banana is a story about the rise of the United Fruit Company. A company that was so multifarious and evil with its tentacles in everything that the local Spanish word for it was “el pulpo,” the octopus. A vicious settler company that occupied large parts of Central America for the purposes of growing bananas for the US market. The reason we have the term “banana republic” is not because there are places that grow bananas that are by accident hopelessly ungovernable, but a banana republic is explicitly something that was a republic in name only where the United Fruit Company was running the show. You’ve got heinous stories of communities resisting the United Fruit Company in Guatemala where a president wanted to engage in some land reform that involved land the United Fruit Company wasn’t using, so they wanted to return that land to the peasants, and instead the United Fruit Company called the CIA to arrange a coup that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths as a result.
If we are to have bananas that are free of that taint what does that involve? Certainly reparations, not just from the United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita) and oughtn't deserve to exist, but also reparations from the US government. Then we need the trade system reformed so that the land on which bananas are grown can be returned to the people who work it, and them to be able to make their own decisions on what they wish to do with that land. Because no one has ever asked workers on banana plantations “would you like this land, and if so on what conditions would you like to be growing on this land? Would it be bananas or something else? What sort of economy would you like?” No one ever asks that question.
After the revolution and the process of revolution is finding out what it is what people want and then making it happen. Expanding the imagination of what’s possible so that we move away from just a “fair trade” banana in which workers are paid a few pennies more an hour in order to slake the guilty consciences of consumers. Instead we should ask the very deep question of ‘you’ve been working on this land for generations, so what is it that you want and deserve for the exploitation and denigration that has been rained down on your and your family?”
Those kinds of questions, I think, are tremendously important, and it’s not clear to me that everyone will just think that since the banana plantation has been around for a while that we should just keep growing bananas. The answer might be quite different. If it does involve substantial reparations, as I believe are warranted, then it may be that people who find themselves on land that are currently used for growing bananas may make very different choices. It’s not for us pining for bananas, or a cup of hot chocolate, to gainsay what that might be.
LW: What I’m hearing you say is that there needs to be a deep commitment to real democracy in this future society as well as autonomy over ourselves and our work, which makes me wonder about the political implications of all of this. What do you think the role of nation-states will be under this future society, and what does ownership look like? Are there going to be nation-states that own these means of production or are there going to be different forms of ownership?
RP: In part this is where my inner Zapatista comes out where I think we “make the road by walking.” It’s hard for me to imagine the state as we currently see it to disentangle that from a colonial project, and from what I understand revolution to be it has to be a process of decolonization. That’s a really hard act of imagination to engage in as a solo project. Where I see examples of resistance to colonialism is mainly through the resistance of Indigenous people imagining configurations of power and self-governance that do not fall on the nation-state, but nonetheless do the kinds of things that nation-states do such as provide welfare, community support, and shared collective goods. But it’s possible to have the things that we like about a nation-state without having the state apparatus looking the way it currently does. I can draw inspiration from that, but it’s unwise I think for anyone to imagine both what things look like after the revolution and the process of new political theory that’s required without actually engaging in those actions as a matter of praxis. These institutional forms have to emerge from praxis rather than from whatever strange revolutionary thinks they have the right idea.
LW: Before we move into the how we materialize this future society, I wonder if you’d be willing to engage in a bit of thought experiment? Will you guide us through one day in the life of the dinner table after the revolution? Walk us through your day, what are you doing, and how does it look and feel for you.
RP: I imagine the day starts after a full eight hours of sleep, which is already like “that’s unimaginable! Who gets eight hours?” So it starts with a full eight hours of sleep, and then it involves the reproductive labor of working with children and making sure they’re all set to participate in whatever communal activity they need to be heading off to. Then it’s very much about hearing what it is that has been harvested and is available for exchange and access. We knit that together with the requirements of what it is that we know the community will require and plan the process, with other people, of cooking, cleaning, serving, and making sure that everyone gets what they need whether young or old. The ingredients in the food that we serve is going to be pretty much vegetarian, if not vegan, just because the planet demands that. The way that we all get to eat in the future has very little meat in it, and that’s fine as loads of societies have not only survived that kind of diet but have thrived on it and found ways to have joy and beauty and deliciousness on their plate. Then we serve, we celebrate, we sing, and then we enjoy cleaning up together and going to bed.
In between there’s been the other kinds of labor that one would imagine is necessary for a community to survive. Often the work of repair, tending, harvesting, and building together. If one imagines what a putative Green New Deal society will look like it’s filled with the activities of care and repair. That’s why the dinner table could fit so nicely into that post-revolutionary future, because it is one very long act of caring and repairing relationships between humans and the rest of the web of life, but also about caring for one another and the planet we find ourselves in.
LW: As you joked prior to recording this interview, the easy part is getting there. Let’s imagine we’re in this provisional moment where we can start to materialize this future society and the things that need to happen to bring about a liberatory society where food is exchanged on these commitments to democracy and egalitarianism, as well as valuing different gender identities and dismantling patriarchy. All those things seem implied in your future vision to me. How do we get there? What are some tangible steps that we need to start taking now to get to that future?
RP: I very much subscribe to the idea that capitalism’s grave-diggers are the working-class. I think concretely what that means is building fronts of solidarity. There are organizations that have gone a long way towards this kind of table. There’s a very famous picture, for example, of the Black Panthers in which men and women are serving children food that’s been cooked by the community with resources rounded up from within the community to make sure that kids go to school having had a full breakfast. The Black Panthers were of course smashed by the state, and they were represented as enemies of the state and the American people whereas in fact a lot of their ideas around healthcare for all, food for everyone, Black and poor communities should be in solidarity, all of that stuff still very much lives in the moment and in ideas that the state has appropriated.
I think that there’s a need not just for an idea of class identity and a “class for itself,” as opposed to a “class in itself” for organizing. Organizing demands around equality across lines of race, class, and gender. That kind of movement can’t be led by the union movement alone, and it can’t be led by a revolutionary party or a cell alone. It has to happen where people find themselves. That’s what’s so exciting about the Black Panther Party. Initially the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was very much just that, about protecting Black bodies from the wrath of the police and the state, but it also articulated with movements of Chicanx and Native Americans, and there was lots of ways that those movements prefigured a politics of emancipation that we can learn a great deal from.
What does it look like to be part of this? It involves being in movements on the ground running, whether shank-dweller movements in the global south or peasants movements here in the United States, there is a great deal of organizing that is theoretically incredibly rich in which the intelligence of members of the working-class are on vast and abundant display. People are coming up with really exciting alternatives with the ways we engage with property and one another, whether that’s about cooperative membership of work that starts on the land and ends on the table as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union are experimenting with or efforts at rematriating land that was once Indigenous land and placing it under Indigenous leadership. There’s no one size fits all policy here, it’s very much about where one finds oneself and the priorities of one’s community. Work with movements that are very theoretically informed and pick where you want to place your energies, but understand that you can’t, as we had in Austin, Texas very recently Maoist cells beating up DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] in the streets, have revolutionary purity because the real opponent against us remains capitalism. Start from where you are and don’t imagine yourself in some sort of fantasy revolutionary lefty world.
LW: Absolutely. As you’re noting with the history of the Black Panther Party it’s not necessary to even have to build all of this from scratch because we have other histories that can inform us and we can learn from for today. Are there other histories that you would point people to that we can learn from, or contemporary forms of political organizing heading toward this future liberatory society that you want people to be aware of?
RP: I’m finishing a project on food systems and climate change internationally, and I was with some incredible activists from Malawi. We traveled the United States a couple of years ago for a bit, and we were working with groups like La Via Campesina to visit some of those sites of struggle. It was striking to me that consistently it was communities of color doing amazing things. Whether in Oakland seeing people’s community kitchens, or in Detroit the D-town Farms, or in Maryland at the Black Farm Collective, communities of color who had been on the frontlines for a long time, not just of the exploitation and enslavements that built this country but also the violence the state continues to mete out, were coming up with some beautiful solutions.
Detroit is a place I look to as I imagine what the future might look like. That’s not because Detroit conforms to some sort of strange fantasy about post-industrial America. Whenever you see pictures of Detroit you see the Packard building falling into disrepair or some such thing. That’s not the story of Detroit that I’m interested in so much as the stories that are ongoing around Black Power being built around access to land and economic and community self-determination. I very much like what is happening around D-town Farms, but you don’t have to go to Detroit only to see that as there are pockets across the United States doing exciting things. That’s coming from Indigenous people, for example the struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the alternatives emerging there, and in community food sovereignty initiatives. But wherever or whatever state you’re in, even Texas I imagine, exciting things are happening on the ground where people are trying rather pragmatically to alter the configurations of power.
LW: This future society you’re painting sounds very appealing and I hope we can get there. I want to give you the opportunity to share any final thoughts on the matter before we conclude this conversation.
RP: Often all of this can feel rather daunting, and I’m in awe of your asking the question ‘what happens after the revolution.’ I’m excited to learn who else has risen to the occasion of thinking through what that might be, because often we don’t give ourselves permission to imagine that’s possible so we find ourselves in rearguard actions against capitalism or fighting the fight in our unions. Those are important fights to fights, I have them and so do you, but I think that part of capitalism’s triumph is its ability to get us to believe that that’s all we’re allowed to dream. I’m so grateful to you for creating a space for folks to be able to ask themselves what might it be like if someone had asked us what sort of society we might want to live in. Since no one has really asked that question other than presenting electoral choices such as the difference between Coke and Pepsi, it means we’ve not really been given a choice. Part of the struggle has been, particularly around combating climate change, that it’s just too big and we can’t possibly do it. But the opposite is the case, it’s so big that we have to do it and we can. You see so many examples of these things actually happening, at least I do, and I get so frustrated when people can’t share them with me. I’m excited that you’re making possible the sharing of these experiences. When this bloody film comes out later on this year I’ll be excited to share that with you, and through that share the examples of many of these movements who are doing revolutionary work around what we want to make of the dinner table.
LW: I’m excited, and I want to say thank you for being on the show.
RP: My pleasure.
Works Referenced and Further Resources:
The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala by Emily Yates-Doerr
The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention by Richard Immerman
La Via Campesina (International Peasants Movement)
We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party by Mumia Abu-Jamal