We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

This is my mantra lately. I keep it in mind because I sense a danger in taking on too much guilt around the many fucked up things going on in the world. It’s true we’re all to some degree implicated in many of these things, and so I acknowledge there is also a danger in not feeling responsible for some of the negative aspects of the state of the world. But responsibility is not the same thing as guilt, and guilt is a worse foundation for action of the two feelings.

An example that’s very present from my life is in gentrification. I grew up in San Francisco, and sure enough, due to the “hypergentrification” the City has gone through, I no longer live there due to being displaced from my last apartment.[1] Displacement is something I know experientially—it’s not some abstract thing. Most of my friends from growing up and early adulthood can no longer live in the city.

I spent my youth coming up in arts, punk music, and urban farming scenes. All three of these areas of urban activity—and those involved in them—have been called out as contributing to gentrification. You may recall the basic argument: generally white(r) populations move into down-and-out areas of disinvested cities, making them “nicer” by dedicating their time to (generally non-paying) pursuits like making art, green space, social/cultural spaces. Their hip tastes and whiteness attract new and wealthier residents who now feel “safe” and welcome where they once didn’t. … Soon rents are going up, and the original residents are forced out by elevating prices or by efforts to get them out (e.g. evictions), since there is more profit to be made serving the newer, richer and whiter populations.

I’m not saying this narrative is completely untrue. But as I’ve covered elsewhere, the narrative ends up placing blame on and directs attention to those who are in a “buying” position in the economy. These are not the people who drive gentrification through choices of investment, disinvestment, and policy-making, but those who play an important but subsidiary role. Neil Smith and others have made this point before.

Another sphere where we’re all responsible, but some more than others, is as regards the state of “the environment”. As Utah Phillips (supposedly) said “The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses”. Yes, I myself have killed the earth by eating take-out, by driving occasionally, by taking planes, by throwing things “away” in a landfill (somewhere)—guilty as charged. You probably kill the earth too, on a daily basis. But we are not meaningfully in control of the underlying material processes that lead to this impact: the extraction of minerals from the earth’s crust, the extraction of fossil fuels and their processing and trading, the financing of these processes, the policy-making that fails to constrain these processes or prevent their damaging impact. We too are in buying positions, which are important but not central.

It seems nonsensical to put you, Exxon CEO/U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and me on the same plane in any political analysis of the environmental problem. A political vision that focuses too much on individual behaviors risks forgetting how much these behaviors are structurally determined, and thus could misdirect political energy away from those are more so responsible for structuring such behavior.

A similar argument can be made regarding the continued harmful white supremacy that pervades everyday life. Certainly, as critical race theorists and antiracist activists have pointed out, white supremacy is “re-inscribed” in everyday life by the individual actions of “everyday” people. We can see this in the overt racism and outward hate emboldened and made even more visible in the post-Trimp era, as well as the more subtle forms of white supremacy common among self-identified “liberals”, like microagressions (forms brilliantly parodied in the smash hit movie “Get Out”).

But just as important are the actions performed by individuals who play vital roles in organizations that structure white supremacy into our lives and enforce it: political bodies, corporations and companies, policing and war-making organizations, and so on. This form of racism is less about individuals and their personal attitudes as the function their (daily) activity fulfills.

I’m thinking for example of government officials (whether executive, legislative, or judicial) making policy, and the decisions made by heads and stockholders of profit-making companies. Politicians make white supremacist laws and police enforce them. Companies pollute and exploit communities of color and get away with it. Real estate investors and their friends in planning departments make plans to displace communities of color in favor of the profit-making opportunity of neighborhood “revitalization” (i.e. gentrification). Individuals in these positions are key points where white supremacy is maintained, even if none of them show outward attitudes of racism.

Sure, we all play a role in these complex political, economic, and ideological processes that lead back to white supremacy—and so we all need to play a role in resisting, subverting, or redirecting these processes. Yet, simply stating “we are all responsible” tends to downplay that some people operate in positions of relatively greater capacity to shape the lives of others. Recognizing this greater capacity should inform more targeted and perhaps strategic political intervention. We can and should fight white supremacy in all its forms and embodiments, but we might want to prioritize fighting against people and organizations that are the most implicated.

Doing so also leaves more space for the uncomfortable and long-term process of changing the everyday ideologies and behavior patterns of people away from white supremacy. That is, if we approach everyone as part of the problem, we have a much harder time gathering a meaningful force towards solutions. This would go for environmental and anti-gentrification movements too. Sometimes, this process is difficult, as those who form the cutting edge of gentrification and white supremacy are sometimes masked by their identities and powerful “it’s not me” defenses.

The case of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) in L.A. is instructive here: in response to obvious indications of arts-led gentrification, with art forming a wedge by which to force open the neighborhood to new colonizers, BHAAAD targeted galleries which were investor’s playthings, but were fronted by queer and otherwise self-described ‘marginalized’ people. While not sparing any harsh words of critique for the process, BHAAAD made it clear: if these gallerists involved wished to avoid being implicated in this unjust process, they needed to close their galleries and leave the neighborhood.

Offering history to explain the gallerists’ role in displacement (unacknowledged by the gallerists, or possibly just too uncomfortable to recognize), BHAAAD explains this role in terms of investment, capital, and (collective) political power—not just individual behavior based on individual “values”. Thus they leave the door open for implicated folks (who were not necessarily “the most responsible”) to choose sides and see themselves as political actors with potentially better choices.

We need to hold a space for self-critique and calling out negative patterns we experience in our immediate environment (e.g. school, home, workplace, social life, etc), but we need to focus our political analysis and oppositional efforts on the structures that are primarily responsible for material conditions, and the people who are directing those structures. To the great middle—those participating in but not directing injustice—activism must be critical, firm, but offered with a structural analysis that leaves an opening for those targeted to be self-reflective and align their actions with their stated politics.

[I suppose this piece needs an accompanying one to explain why police, politicians, and investors should not be considered part of this ‘great middle’, and should be treated instead as the enemies they are. Next time.]

[1] I have things pretty good, relatively speaking: I received a buy-out payment for my eviction, and my mom was lucky enough to buy one of the last affordable houses in the 1990s so I now benefit from that class privilege.

The Liberal/Radical split in Post-Election Organizing

This’ll be a hard post to make short, or sweet.

I’ve been struggling since the election’s results to reconcile feelings I have as an “antidogmatist” interested in a strong and broad anti-systemic social movement to remake our political-economic system.

My struggle is mainly between two issues: my longstanding positioning as a “radical”—meaning someone interested in addressing the root of political issues (namely, capitalism) and not merely reforming oppressive systems to make them “less bad”; and my commitment to keeping an open mind with folks who don’t have radical analyses, take radical positions, or participate in radical action—that which I truly believe is necessary to make any substantial transformation in society.

These ideas are coming into conflict because throughout this election and since the election of Trump, U.S. liberals (i.e. non-radicals) around me and in cyberspace have remained stubbornly committed to their existing politics—politics that not only have proven unable to make progressive change, but are also (at least in part) responsible for the horrible situation we find ourselves in, and are now even endangering an effective response to Trump and his ilk.

For those who might identify with the term liberal, and are confused how it might be getting thrown around as a pejorative, please understand that I am using the term in a specific way. I’m not referring to those who believe in the right to maintain and uplift social diversity (e.g. gender, sexual, racial, age, etc). I’m not really referring either to those who abide by the conventional (i.e. British-origin) definition of liberal: those concerned with individual liberties, and a politics based on the notion of individuals converging and hashing out differences in the public/governmental sphere (although that version of liberal definitely overlaps with the one I’m talking about).

Courtesy Flikr account djandywdotcom
Courtesy Flikr account djandywdotcom

What I’m talking about is the liberal who essentially is invested in the political-economic system we have. Liberals believe this system perhaps requires some tweaking in order to achieve more robust outcomes of justice, but ultimately is “the best of all possible worlds”—largely because revolutionary change is dismissed as impossible. Liberals rejecting revolution often also downplay criticism of capitalism and oppose (or at least fail to participate in) action that moves beyond established channels of social choice-making (such as voting, government, or consumer choice).

The liberal I describe is someone who (in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., a go-to for liberals in many an argument, even if many don’t bother to read him directly or understand his history or analysis):

is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro [read: any activist] to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

It is high time that liberals start trying to deepen their understanding of radicalism. In this time of Trump and reactions from below—when violent state suppression is likely to increase and responses from the frontlines likely to radicalize—to hold on as a liberal to liberal thinking is to take sides with the status quo.

I’m over trying to act as a peacemaker between liberals and radicals: this is a time to choose sides and fight, not to have an endless and useless discussion where liberal assumptions are made the baseline (e.g. elections are democratic) upon which radicals have to defend our vision, perspective, and approach. This is the bulk of what I see on “Leftbook”—liberals who don’t actually listen, don’t actually question their own assumptions, don’t seem to read (critical) histories, and don’t seek to look themselves in the mirror.

And please consider: I’m not arguing these are character flaws. I certainly like many of the people who are posting entreaties to convince the Electoral College to change to Clinton, or to demand a recount, or what have you. I’m not saying these people suck—I’m saying their politics are wrong and ill informed, and quite possibly their efforts move counter to their stated values.

As many smarties have said: don’t do the same thing over and over and expect different outcomes.

For those who might think of themselves as liberals but interested in or inching towards radical, I’m offering up below some resources I’ve recently found. The biggest push back I’ve gotten from liberals is the argument that there are not alternative, effective ways of action beyond their suggestions. This is not true, if you’re willing to do the research.

There’s more of this out there than these two links, of course, and I am not vouching for everything within (I’ve barely been able to read much in either link), but these two lists of resources are good starts for those who want to understand radical historical analysis, radical tactics and strategy, and the radical rejection of liberalism.

#TrumpTheRegime: Resources and Ongoing Resistance to Trump and the Far-Right


An excerpt from the latter:

“WE studied and pursued methods for revolutionary social change before Trump came to power, and our core focus remains the same: abolishing the ever-enlarging systems of hierarchy, control, and environmental destruction necessary to sustain the growth of capital. With the ascendance of White nationalist ambition to the upper echelons of empire, we have given special attention to struggles waged and endured by marginalized people for whom the fight against capital has always been a concurrent fight against Anglo-Saxon supremacy.

Although there are bleak times ahead, we must remember that for most of us America was never paradise. Democrats and liberals will use this time to revise history. They will present themselves as the reasonable solution to Trump’s reign and advocate a return to “normalcy.” But their normal is a country where Black people are routinely killed by police and more people are imprisoned than any other place in the world. Their normal is a country where millions are exploited while a handful eat lavishly. Their normal is the opposite of a solution; it’s a threat to our lives.”

I want to believe that liberals can become radicalized. At least, I’d like to see a more concerted “inside-outside” strategy that aligns more radical movements with more liberal ones. But I’ve been seeing that even in this historical moment—with the apparent non-functionality of “democratic” politics, the continued rule of a political-economic elite class, a climate crisis that capitalist states refuse to confront, and the resurgence of populist ideas—liberals don’t seem to be changing much, and are instead largely clamping down on bad ideas (like voting for lesserevilism and continual investment in Democratic Party politics).

More disappointingly, many liberals are into gaslighting radicals as “unrealistic”, “naïve”, “foolish” and “unsophisticated” whenever they present alternative views or critiques. This belittling position, coming often but not always from people of relative privilege in society, is what compels me need to write this blog. In opposing violence (i.e. resistance from underclasses) “on principle” such liberals allow state-sanctioned (e.g. anti-black) violence to go on unimpeded. In redirecting righteous anger back towards reformist avenues that do little to nothing to change the structure of society, liberals prevent the change they supposedly desire. In blaming the victim (often the poorest, the black and indigenous, the most marginal in society) for the outcomes of failed electoral efforts, liberals consolidate the rightward drift of U.S. politics.

In particular, now that Trump has won, emboldening the radical right of white supremacists, xenophobes, and other reactionary social forces, we need more unity to push back from “the Left”. But if “the Left” remains dominated by liberals who oppose street actions, direct actions, protests that interfere with business as usual, property destruction, strikes, occupations, and so on, this push back will fail.

We anti-capitalists and radicals can count on the government to suppress uprisings and dissent, but with liberals as agents of the state, “peace policing” such dissent and insisting on a “more reasonable” return to business as usual, we need even more than ever to assert radicalism and deny the “poverty of liberalism“.

I sincerely hope that some ex-liberal friends join in this effort.

Courtesy Wikipedia
Courtesy Wikipedia

On Agroecology and its (Potential) Co-optation

I’ve not been able to update the blog lately, but have been working on some writing for further down the line (i.e. later book sections). I kind of got sick of posting the negative “what is wrong with the food system” stuff, and I hope I can speed through those sections and get onto solutions soon.

In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the later sections. I wrote this book section probably 3 months ago, and in the meantime, Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel Altieri beat me to the punch, writing up this blog that describes some of the same issues I was trying to raise. Namely, they and I are concerned with the potential for agroecology to lose its key politics in being translated to contexts of the industrial “Global North”.

I’m currently working on this issue very directly, through my work with a large, national environmental NGO, while working at the same time with scholars involved in agroecology (like Miguel and Eric), and movements of farmers and farmworkers on the ground in different parts of the USA. I will say, there is certainly lots of tension at this historical moment, lots to do, lots of potential, and lots of danger.

I’m excited to see what happens in the next 2-3 years. In the meantime, here’s the post (which will be put in the Guide later on):

As mentioned, agroecology is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production, involving practices that regenerate ecological systems and utilize ecological principles and processes. Agroecology is not simply a set of practices that compose a method of production. It is also a science to improve those methods, and a social movement spearheaded by the traditional groups that have crafted and advanced them, and which (importantly) foregrounds those groups’ rights to produce agroecologically—against a failing industrial system that would displace them.

Agroecological practices apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.

The practices of agroecology are important, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are based on principles rather than hard and fast rules about what practice is the “right” one. Agroecology is essentially about creating place-based farming systems, appropriate to particular social and ecological conditions.

At the same time, the science of agroecology is about applying these principles using scientific research to understand these conditions well, and combining this scientific knowledge with the experience-based wisdom of farmers themselves, and other ecologically minded stewards of the land and sea (especially indigenous people).

Leading and early proponents of the science of agroecology acknowledge this debt to indigenous and peasants, and in fact have defined agroecology not simply as a science, or set of practices, but as a science, practice, and social movement. This is because some of the most successful means for spreading agroecology have come not from scientists in the academy or development organizations, but from movements of farmers and producers themselves. They have used “farmer to farmer” models of horizontal training and awareness building to spread agroecological practices when governments and corporate interests have lacked interest.

The social movement that has most advanced agroecology has been that of peasants proclaiming a vision of “food sovereignty”. Denying the benefits of capitalist, industrial agriculture as the foundation for an equitable sustainable food system, these movements (especially those originating in Latin America) have promoted agroecology among its members, developed the science alongside scientist collaborators, and fought for policies to protect and enhance food producer communities’ abilities to practice agroecology.

The result of these efforts has been a partial mainstreaming of agroecology as a concept, wherein even bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are considering it a viable method towards sustainable food systems. However, with this mainstreaming comes the strong risk of co-optation: particularly, the paring back of agroecology simply to a depoliticized agronomic concept of applying ecology to farming.

This is especially dangerous to the movements who have advanced agroecology on the ground, as they risk being subsumed by the same interests who already hold so much power in the food system. Large landowners, food and agrichemical corporations, and state governments all have an interest in bolstering their own legitimacy (and simultaneously undercutting that of their opposition) by adopting non-threatening components of agroecology (i.e. the agronomic techniques aspect).

For this reason, it is of crucial importance to keep agroecology within/alongside the concept of food sovereignty, and to promote its existence as not simply a “science” or set of practices, but also a movement with aims to regain control of the food system by farmers and non-elites.

Decolonizing Political Ecology, De-dogmatizing Decoloniality

(image courtesy buddhistpeacefellowship.org)

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend who is exploring in his PhD studies (and of course his activism) the relationship between Political Ecology (as a scholarly discipline) and Decolonization (as a political project). This piqued my non-dogmatic interest, as each of these trends can be mired by certain dogmas (dogmas which are by no means found in every example of either trend, but appear enough to associate with them).

On the political ecology end, a focus on the “systems” that weigh down upon environmental injustices (namely, capitalism and nation-state-based governance systems) and the interpretation of these through Marxist and anarchist/populist political economic lenses can lead to inadvertent ignorance of other axes of oppression and ecological destruction, which do not always or necessarily stem from states or capitalist economic classes. Political ecology can thus be overly structural; it can end up leaving out alternative forms of analyzing environmental issues (for example, dismissing spiritual dimensions or a gendered analysis of resource access). [1] The influence of Marxism in particular on political ecology can at times be extremely Eurocentric in its categories of analysis.

Decolonization (especially as an emerging academic subfield) has I think the opposite problem: it wishes away real categories of social power and social existence, like economic class, governmental policy, or democracy, based on their historical association with the long march of racist, capitalist, state-led colonization. That is, some fans of decolonization seek emancipation only in terms that have been completely “decolonized” from Eurocentric/Euro-originated concepts. (I myself have been called to task by decolonial academics for proposing “autonomy” as a concept that could apply universally to all human beings—I was accused of reproducing colonial thinking in assuming an individualism that these critics associated with my use of the concept of autonomy.)

The thing is, both projects—political ecology and decoloniality—are so crucial for reaching towards a better world: we need to understand the (often systemic) problems that create dysfunctional human/nonhuman relations—i.e. environmental degeneration—in order to confront and transform those systems. And we need to pursue strategies that actively decolonize the beliefs and habits of colonized and colonizer alike, while fundamentally undermining the structures of continued colonization (as in unequal North/South market relationships, climate change inaction, concentrated land ownership and control, and so on).

But either project on their own is limited, and potentially alienating when pushed to describe or resolve all struggles everywhere. That is why I really appreciated my friends’ interest in finding a way of melding these two paths to change making.

This friend also introduced me to other people he’s found to be on that same path. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is one such person—an anarchist, feminist, and historian from Bolivia. Reading this interview with her, I found many things to love about this woman!

One of the most pertinent quotes is where she describes the idea of a “trivalent logic”—coming from the Aymara indigenous people of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile—which she understands “as opposed to Aristotelian binary logic”.

Aymara philosophy is based on the “included third.” A is not B, and B is not A. But there are things that are A and B at the same time. In binary logic, one excludes the other. But when you have the logic of inclusion, you have enormous possibilities of intercultural action.

Throughout the interview, Silvia shows herself to live and speak and dream an antidogmatist radicalism, by embodying this inclusive, trivalent logic. This isn’t same as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” either, because it holds space for the contradictions that come with an “included third”. It is not a settlement of dichotomy, but a working through it. If we realize that few people in modern society could accurately be described as mere colonized or colonizer, perhaps we can start building a movement of “included thirds”, a movement that pushes past such counterproductive compartmentalization.

For example, Silvia does not dismiss her own European ancestry as hopelessly “colonial”, while pursuing indigenous justice and the development of an indigenous worldview. She sees the contradictions inherent in being herself, a product of colonization and an opponent of it, and lives through these contradictions in a positive and humorous light. She says “We live the contradiction with joy”. She is not less indigenous because of her mixed heritage, nor is the European aspect something she seeks to reject or subsume in the name of “decolonization”.

Similarly, Silvia also does not dismiss markets as hopelessly colonial, as some of my self-proclaimed anti-capitalist/anti-state friends do. Instead, she explains how (within the Bolivian context), she sees the indigenous markets as resisting the dominance of capitalist markets—acting she says “like a vaccination” against them! Much of the “peasant populist” literature in critical agrarian studies (and critical agrarian movements!) shares this analysis, seeing peasants’ sales in local markets as means towards greater autonomy, and against subservience to the global market.

Many activists in the United States, in contrast, seem attached to dualistic black-and-white thinking, e.g. the many anti-capitalists who reject all NGOs as part of the “non-profit industrial complex”, or mission-oriented business as “neoliberal”—without considering seriously what these NGOs and organizations actually do. The very important and useful critique of NGOs (of INCITE!’s book “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”) has at times been used to justify a dogmatic rejection of all efforts to create (certain kinds of) organizations as vehicles for change.

Decolonial thinking might cause me to question anything that emerges from coloniality, including organizational forms with suspect histories. But only with a truly informed political ecological analysis of who does what, who gets what, and what are the effects on non-human nature and human-human relations, can “decolonial” critiques go beyond dogma, and become more grounded in the realities of what is causing harm, what is mitigating it, and what can be done to decolonize.

I hope to see greater emergence in the coming years of an “included third” of political movements informed by but not limited to both decolonization and political ecology ideas. These movements, by acting from thoughtful analysis and concrete social positions, will likely dismantle the theory-driven limitations of decolonization and political ecology as scholarly pursuits: it is praxis that brings out the best of both worlds and creates new possibilities for liberation.

From Wikimedia

[1] I must say in its defense that political ecology has already evolved much in its first 30 years as a field of study, as has decoloniality over its years of scholarship and practice. Both fields are fields of scholarly inquiry, and fields of action. Perhaps it goes with out saying, butI have found those who trend more on the “action” side to be less dogmatic in their interpretations of each respective framework, and in their analyses that emerge from their interpretation.

Disruptive Action and the Food Movement

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of disruptive action in affecting political change, and how this might relate to “the food movement”.

What I mean by “disruptive action” is masses of people disrupting the established order. Strikes, blockades, sit-ins, riots, occupations and so on are manifestations of people power that do not follow the guidelines for “acceptable action” set by political/economic elite classes. As such, these manifestations are far more threatening to those classes than other forms of action, and are more effective in bringing about social change (in the substantive sense).

The emblematic examples of disruptive action in recent US history are, of course, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and #Black Lives Matter (#BLM). These movements have been uncontrolled by a central leader or organization, exist primarily out on the streets and in confrontations with powers-that-be (whether police, politicians, or white supremacy broadly), and have truly disrupted the idea that business-as-usual is a viable option.

Both OWS’s and #BLM’s effects have thus far been more so on our society’s ideas and discourses than its policy or institutions. However, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither is social change. Often, changes in discourse prefigure a larger shift in culture and commitments, by contributing—alongside various disruptive courses of action and construction of on-the-ground alternatives—to pushes towards change “at the top”.

This is what the history of the early 20th century into the New Deal shows: the ascendance of organized and disruptive labor power legitimated the working class’s rights to a greater share of social wealth and threatened the existing elite management of society. New Deal policy changes (the kind that are now considered “socialist” in Fox News discourse) were the outcome of this crisis of legitimacy.

disrupting powerIt is my contention (and certainly there are others who have thought this before or written entire books upon the thesis) that disruptive forms of action are far more effective than reformist working “by the books” or “inside the system”.


This isn’t to say no one should do reformist things, or that they are useless point-blank. It’s more to say that, in the absence of disruptive action, and in the presence of a corrupt political system profoundly skewed towards elites, insider efforts are very unlikely to lead to substantive change. Instead, they lead to co-optation of change energy, and milquetoast reforms that do not really challenge the status quo.

Another way of saying this is that insofar as your desired political changes would truly upset the entrenched power of economic/political elites, the more disruptive power must be manifested to achieve them.

So what does this have to do with “the food movement”? Well, for lack of a better term to describe an amorphous thing, “the food movement” has gained lots of discourse traction (i.e. the idea that food systems should change has become widely acknowledged)—but it doesn’t tend to exert the disruptive muscle that movements against economic inequality and political corruption (i.e. OWS) and structural, endemic, murderous racism (i.e. #BLM) have manifested. The food movement’s adoption of disruptive tactics is limited (I am guessing) by the kinds of people that compose the movement, and the kinds of problems it faces.

Hippies went “back-to-the-land” in the mid-20th century, becoming landowners but failing to shift land use patterns writ large. Environmentalists have floundered in addressing industrial agriculture’s impacts via litigation, policy, or market change campaigns. Food security groups have barely made a dent in rates of hunger as poverty progresses, securing (at best) the continued existence of food banks, while food justice groups have elevated the importance of social justice in food movements, but haven’t gained much more than gardens and jobs programs. Small farmers are marginalized economically and politically, and sustainable agriculture (at least judged by the imperfect proxy of “organic” certified farming) constitutes less than 1% of farmland, or 5% of sales value.

I certainly don’t mean to disparage of these efforts! Yet I would argue that too little disruption by most aspects of the movement has led to too little success in bringing about transformative food systems change.

As an example of the food movement’s limited policy influence, see the 20+ years of work by sustainable agriculture advocates for more support through the US Farm Bill: while achieving small incremental victories of funding here and there, advocates have failed to derail the existing direction of massive public funds towards agribusiness profit enhancement. The Farm Bill continues on course, bolstering the “bad food” system while undermining the possibilities of transitioning to a good one. No one in the USDA, Congress, the FDA, or any relevant administration seems scared or willing to challenge the established order. What should be simple, uncontroversial asks (for example, that sustainable agriculture research be funded at levels equivalent to its market share or demand for sustainable foods) are largely kept off the table.

Yet why would we expect this policy-focused part of the food movement to act disruptively anyway? Certainly there are other facets to the food movement, but those parts that are composed of educated, middle class environmentalists, professional nonprofiteers, and urbanite foodies are less likely to participate in (or even approve of) disruptive action. As some more revolutionary-minded analysts have argued (in relation to “class struggle” which is similar but not equivalent to disruptive action):

People … engage in class struggle because they can no longer continue living as they did before. When the risks of taking confrontational and militant actions are relatively low compared to the consequences of continuing life as normal, then people are pushed into class struggle.

Unjust and racially inflected police shootings are not new by any means—yet for those living their lives under constant threat of such violence they have passed the limit of tolerability. As such, many people experience (and talk about) these shootings as an acute issue. The 2008 debt-sparked economic crisis was likewise viewed as an acute historical moment of crisis, though it had plenty of historical precedents and lead-up. One should see these crises as moments reflecting chronic (i.e. long-term) problems, though they are noteworthy for how their acute manifestations commanded attention and sparked disruptive responses.

In contrast, most problems in the food system (and as we’ve seen, there are many!)—environmental damage, social injustice, ill health—tend to be more chronic in their nature and appearance.

Type II Diabetes doesn’t happen suddenly, but takes hold over the years of eating unhealthy foods. The poverty that so many folks experience is painfully chronic, and is less often experienced as a sudden change, or seen as directly related to food systems issues. [1]Non-point source pollution” (like nitrogen runoff from thousands of over-applications of fertilizers on thousands of farms) is less acute than, say, the effects of fracking operations, which have led to multiple local activist responses. And for many examples, there are no clear responsible parties who would be obvious targets of disruptive action: the system is too large and diffuse.

My question for this piece, then, is: are there avenues towards a disruptive set of tactics for the food movement? What examples might we build from?

The “Fight for $15” movement, started by fast food chain workers (but since expanded well beyond) might be one of the best recent examples of labor organizing in the food system that involves elements of disruption. While the Fight also takes it to company boardrooms, legislators, and other power brokers, its main element has been directly organizing workers in fast food chains and organizing with them walkouts, strikes, protests, and other displays of social force. The effect has been clear: multiple state and local governments, and even a few companies, have committed to the $15/hour minimum wage.

More on the illegal side has been the widespread use of the tactic of burning GMO experimental test fields as way to prevent GMOs’ spread and success, and as a registering of dissent to the researchers and companies that profit from their existence. These direct actions have not made apparent damage overall to the pro-GMO project, which continues. But according to a quote from the above-linked article (which is unsympathetic to the “vandals” it studies), “most researchers have been discouraged by anti-GMO activists destroying field trials”: disruption adds additional financial and social cost to the process of GMO development. In addition, these actions inspire those who are directly impacted by and opposed to GMO crop development.

Even more risky, in that the disruptive action in question cannot be done in the cover of night, is what one might call “massive forced retail redistribution”, a.k.a. group shoplifting for Robin Hood ends (the link is to a video of such an action by union organizers and the mayor of a small town in Spain). Such groups have stolen food goods from large corporate chain retailers, and distributed them for free among sectors of the poor. These actions are sometimes accompanied by rhetoric aimed at corporate control not just of food production but also its distribution, and the need to see food as a human right rather than commodity.

Another example of food/farming-related disruptive direct action I know well is the “Occupy the Farm” action and campaign that started in spring of 2012. Coming off the heels of OWS, Occupy the Farm was a great example of directing the Occupy energy towards tangible goals of increasing community access to urban farm land, while also pushing for changes in discourses about food systems and their problems/solutions. The group illegally occupied a piece of land threatened with development, successfully pressuring the University of California (the land’s “owner”) to change plans and convert the land into an agroecological learning farm.

I’ve written about OTF extensively elsewhere, but the lesson is clear: sometimes, land occupations by cadres of activists—when mobilizing existing histories of community demands for land and placing decision-makers in uncomfortable positions—can win local demands and change the story.

Perhaps the key is to pair the right disruptive action with the right target, both structurally (who is in charge? what structures can be changed?) and in terms of the particular policy/issue demands. For example, Occupy the Farm targeted university plans to develop the farmland instead of using it as an agricultural resource (as was the University’s “land grant” mandate)—they didn’t just occupy any ol’ coveted piece of privately owned land. The action focused on the issues of community land access, urban farming, sustainability, and food sovereignty, through action focused on a particular piece of land with relevance to these issues.

Similarly, direct actions against GMOs could take it to the fields, but also the offices of agrichemical corporations. Direct action could disrupt the hubs of the grain/feed/livestock nexus, by shutting down the grain silos and interrupting the train lines that deliver key feeds from farm fields to factory farm CAFOs.

Direct actions for farmworker rights include the recent Driscoll’s berry boycott, and the sometimes-referenced legacy of the Safeway grape boycotts (and strikes). These more “traditional” forms of worker organizing—pickets, boycotts, and consumer education—might be made more powerful through deeper labor/consumer alliances. What if many eaters came out to support direct actions by workers or farmers? Would it be possible to organize and finance land, factory, or building take-overs that could employ the unemployed and reclaim food-related infrastructure?

How can we scale up food-related direct actions so that they are truly disruptive—so disruptive and widespread that people must talk about them, the way society has been forced to discuss income inequality, political corruption, and state violence against Black bodies?

Or perhaps there is a different way to build up disruptive capacity?

Maybe “food movement” people need to join existing disruptive (“non-food”) movements, like #BLM? By doing so, we could support such movements with our resources and time, and learn the skills, challenges, and processes of “doing disruption”. Additionally, cross-sector solidarity could be built. And perhaps through this solidarity-based engagement, more food-systems-focused ideas and strategies would be integrated into those networks? [2]

At the least, there are some hopeful indications that large environmentalist mobilization groups (like 350.org and Friends of the Earth) see the important connections between disruptive mobilization and achieving social justice, and are increasingly willing to support campaigns like Fight for 15 and #BLM (at least rhetorically).

I’m by no means settled on these ideas of strategy. I’ve simply been thinking about them, they are just initial ideas, and am curious to hear your thoughts.


[1] Although the food riots of 2007/2008 show how much poverty can manifest in disruptive action related to food, when desperation is high enough.

[2] There certainly is an existing overlap between #BLM and land/food justice work: many Black-led organizations are pioneering decolonization/organizing frameworks for organizing in their communities, including garden projects. But I’d argue that not enough non-Black “food justice” organizations and projects are engaging directly and publically supporting #BLM actions.

[Post script: it seems the most active “direct actionistas” of the food movement are the animal liberationists. A web platform called “Direct Action Everywhere” says it all. Sadly, I can’t say I support this particular form of food movement disruptive action, if only because I find their arguments about animal liberation unconvincing and dogmatic, and their approach to solutions moralistic yet indefensible ecologically. I’m all for an end to factory farming and animal exploitation, but I don’t think we get there by equating all consumption and use of animal products as “speciesist”.]