A natural history of 'food riots'

Winter 2009

In 2008, there was a sudden rapid escalation in staple food prices on world markets and, in response, numerous food riots in the global South. This essay underscores that these food riots, as E.P. Thompson argued for those in an earlier moment, are reasoned forms of collective conscious struggle against injustice, not the mindless spontaneous outbursts that the term ‘riot’ implies. In this most recent resurgence, however, the injustice addressed is manifestly global, which requires a supplement to the work of Marxist historians on early modern food riots in Europe. In the current global context, theorists and activists in the global North must take particular care to adjust their theories and their praxis to consider global effects of their own local choices, as well as the grotesquely uneven conditions in which so-called free choices are made. Specifically, critiques of Neoliberal globalisation must take on - as food riots do - the uneven distribution of concrete global resources that market forces not only effect but naturalize. This means that no theory, or praxis, can afford to put so much emphasis on the post-Fordist shift to increased ‘immaterial’ production that the limits imposed by the concrete world are obscured. We also cannot assume that ‘acting locally’ will combat injustice effectively; a consideration of global consequences is always necessary since current conditions are so uneven. This global state of affairs poses a predicament for theories of ‘de-centred’ politics with their aversion to organization and conscious planning. The limits of (individual) market “choice” must be consciously combated by the development of mechanisms for collective aggregate distribution of properly common planetary resources.

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