From the Cancer Stage of Capitalism to the Political Principle of the Common: The Social Immune Response of “Food as Commons”

Document Type : Original Article

Author

Faculty of Higher Education, William Angliss Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Abstract

Background
Critical scholars agree that contemporary globalised and industrialised food systems are in profound and deepening crises; and that these systems are generative of accelerating multiple crises in the earth’s life systems. Why and how did we arrive at this point? This paper argues that, conceiving each individual human as one cell in the greater human body, we are afflicted by what John McMurtry termed ‘the cancer stage of capitalism.’ This provocative framing is adopted here in response to growing calls by climate, earth and physical scientists not to ‘mince words’ in the description and analysis of humanity’s current predicament, but rather ‘tell it like it is.’ 
 
Methods 
Proceeding from McMurtry’s application of the seven defining medical properties of a ‘cancer invasion [of] an individual organism’ to the broader body politic and the earth’s life system, this paper draws on literature from diverse disciplines to investigate the fundamental cause of food systems crises. The paper references several empirical studies and meta-reviews that indicate the hastening decline in the integrity of human and ecological health, with a particular focus on the grain-oilseed-livestock complex and the accompanying social and ecological impacts on the southern cone countries of South America. 
 
Results 
The cause of food system crises is to be found in the core logic of capital accumulation, the profit imperative, and the relentless and expanding processes of commodification and financialization. The key metric of ‘economic growth’ is problematised and discussed. An embryonic ‘social immune response’ is now observable, in the diverse practices of decommodification, proposals for de-growth and commoning that together constitute an emerging ‘food as a commons’ movement.
 
Conclusion
As currently framed, the Food as Commons proposal lacks coherence, rigour and a viable strategy to move beyond the current crisis. Its transformative potential can be strengthened through a more explicitly political grounding based on appeals to and support of anti- and post-capitalist movements and initiatives.

Keywords


  1. Berry T. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Crown; 2013.
  2. Farmar-Bowers Q. Food Security in Australia. New York, NY: Springer; 2013.
  3. Lawrence G, Richards C, Gray I, Hansar N. Climate change and the resilience of commodity food production in Australia. In: Rosin C, Campbell H, Stock P, eds. Food Systems Failure: The Global Food Crisis and the Future of Agriculture. New York, NY: Earthscan; 2012:131-146. doi:10.4324/9781849776820
  4. McMichael P. A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis.’ Agric Human Values. 2009;26(4):281. doi:10.1007/s10460-009-9218-5
  5. Moore JW. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso; 2015.
  6. De Genova N. Life versus capital: COVID-19 and the politics of life. Soc Anthropol. 2020. doi:10.1111/1469-8676.12827
  7. Mezzadri A. A crisis like no other: Social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dev Econ. 2020. https://bit.ly/3m5fF0J.  Updated May 29, 2020. Accessed January 25, 2021.
  8. Holt-Giménez E. A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism. New York: NYU Press; 2017.
  9. McMurtry J. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure. London: Pluto Press; 2015. doi:10.2307/j.ctt183p2k8
  10. Vivero-Pol JL, Ferrando T, De Schutter O, Mattei U. Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons. Routledge; 2018.
  11. Dardot P, Laval C. Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing; 2019.
  12. IPES-Food. The New Science of Sustainable Food Systems: Overcoming Barriers to Food Systems Reform. First Report of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems; 2015. http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/NewScienceofSusFood.pdf.  Updated May 2015. Accessed June 15, 2020.
  13. Ali T, Buergelt PT, Maypilama EL, Paton D, Smith JA, Jehan N. Synergy of systems theory and symbolic interactionism: a passageway for non-Indigenous researchers that facilitates better understanding Indigenous worldviews and knowledges. Int J Soc Res Methodol. 2021:1-16. doi:10.1080/13645579.2021.1876300
  14. Bello WF. The Food Wars. London: Verso; 2009.
  15. Albritton R. Let Them Eat Junk: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity. New York: Pluto Press; 2009. doi:10.2307/j.ctt183pbv8
  16. IPES-Food. Too Big to Feed: Exploring the Impacts of Mega-Mergers, Consolidation and Concentration of Power in the Agri-Food Sector. IPES-Food; 2017. 
  17. Harvey D. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. USA: Oxford University Press; 2007.
  18. Hickel J. The true extent of global poverty and hunger: questioning the good news narrative of the Millennium Development Goals. Third World Q. 2016;37(5):749-767. doi:10.1080/01436597.2015.1109439
  19. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, World Health Organization. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets. Rome: FAO: 2020. doi:10.4060/ca9692en
  20. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990-2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Lancet. 2019;393(10184):1958-1972. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(19)30041-8
  21. World Health Organization (WHO). Global Health Observatory data: NCD Mortality and Morbidity. https://www.who.int/gho/ncd/mortality_morbidity/en/.  Published n.d. Accessed February, 10 2020.
  22. IPES-Food. Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus: Addressing Practices, Political Economy, and Power Relations to Build Healthier Food Systems. http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/Health_FullReport(1).pdf.  Updated October 2017. Accessed May 20, 2019.
  23. Business Wire. The $11.9 Trillion Global Healthcare Market: Key Opportunities & Strategies (2014-2022). https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190625005862/en/11.9-Trillion-Global-Healthcare-Market-Key-Opportunities.  Updated June 25, 2019. Accessed February 10, 2020.
  24. Tselengidis A, Östergren PO. Lobbying against sugar taxation in the European Union: analysing the lobbying arguments and tactics of stakeholders in the food and drink industries. Scand J Public Health. 2019;47(5):565-575. doi:10.1177/1403494818787102
  25. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.  Updated 2018. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  26. Brondizio ES, Settele J, Díaz S, Ngo HT. Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn, German: IPBES secretariat; 2019. https://ipbes.net/global-assessment.  Updated 2019. Accessed June 10, 2020.  
  27. Bradshaw CJ, Ehrlich PR, Beattie A, et al. Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Front Conserv Sci. 2021;1:615419. doi:10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419
  28. Smith R. Beyond growth or beyond capitalism. Real World Econ Rev. 2010;53:28-42.
  29. Kovel J. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? Zed Books; 2007.
  30. Weis T. The meat of the global food crisis. J Peasant Stud. 2013;40(1):65-85. doi:10.1080/03066150.2012.752357
  31. Altieri MA. Green deserts: Monocultures and their impacts on biodiversity. In: Suarez SM, ed. Red Sugar, Green Deserts. FIAN; 2009:68-77.
  32. Pengue W. The Impact of Soybean Expansion in Argentina. Grain website. https://www.grain.org/es/article/entries/292-the-impact-of-soybean-expansion-in-argentina.  Updated September 24, 2001. Accessed February 5, 2021.
  33. Pengue WA. Agrofuels and agrifoods: counting the externalities at the major crossroads of the 21st century. Bull Sci Technol Soc. 2009;29(3):167-179. doi:10.1177/0270467609333731
  34. 2020/21 Argentina soybean and corn acreage estimates.  http://news.agropages.com/News/NewsDetail---36164.htm#:~:text=2020%2F21%20Argentina%20Soybean%20Acreage,or%20an%20increase%20of%202.2%25.  Updated August 6, 2020. Accessed February 15, 2021.
  35. Weis T. Confronting meatification. In: Katz-Rosene RM, Martin SJ, eds. Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters Animals and the Planet. McGill- Queen’s University Press; 2020:29-42.
  36. Correia JE. Soy states: resource politics, violent environments and soybean territorialization in Paraguay. J Peasant Stud. 2019;46(2):316-336. doi:10.1080/03066150.2017.1384726
  37. Gillam C. Whitewash: The story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Washington: Island Press; 2017.
  38. Chisleanschi R. Agrochemicals and Industrial Waste Threaten Argentina’s Gran Chaco. Mongabay. August 19, 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/agrochemicals-and-industrial-waste-threaten-argentinas-gran-chaco/.  Accessed February 12, 2021. 
  39. de Groot GS, Aizen MA, Sáez A, Morales CL. Large-scale monoculture reduces honey yield: the case of soybean expansion in Argentina. Agric Ecosyst Environ. 2021;306:107203. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2020.107203
  40. Altieri MA. The ecological impacts of large-scale agrofuel monoculture production systems in the Americas. Bull Sci Technol Soc. 2009;29(3):236-244. doi:10.1177/0270467609333728
  41. Ramankutty N, Mehrabi Z, Waha K, et al. Trends in global agricultural land use: implications for environmental health and food security. Annu Rev Plant Biol. 2018;69:789-815. doi:10.1146/annurev-arplant-042817-040256
  42. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-492. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(18)31788-4
  43. Ripple WJ, Wolf C, Newsome TM, Barnard P, Moomaw WR. World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. BioScience. 2020;70(1):8-12. doi:10.1093/biosci/biz088
  44. Røpke I. The early history of modern ecological economics. Ecol Econ. 2004;50(3):293-314. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.02.012
  45. Costanza R, Daly HE. Toward an ecological economics. Ecol Modell. 1987;38(1-2):1-7. doi:10.1016/0304-3800(87)90041-x
  46. Pearce D. Foundations of an ecological economics. Ecol Modell. 1987;38(1-2):9-18. doi:10.1016/0304-3800(87)90042-1
  47. Daly HE. Steady-state economics versus growthmania: a critique of the orthodox conceptions of growth, wants, scarcity, and efficiency. Policy Sci. 1974;5(2):149-167. doi:10.1007/bf00148038
  48. Smith R. If Herman Daly has a better plan, let’s hear it. Real World Econ Rev. 2010;54:13-34.
  49. Daly H. The operative word here is ‘somehow.’ Real World Econ Rev. 2010;54:103.
  50. Marx K. Capital (Vol 1, B. Fowkes, Trans.). New York: Vintage; 1976.
  51. Blauwhof FB. Overcoming accumulation: Is a capitalist steady-state economy possible? Ecol Econ. 2012;84:254-261. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.03.012
  52. Hickel J. Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. Random House; 2020.
  53. Lawn P. Is steady-state capitalism viable? a review of the issues and an answer in the affirmative. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011;1219:1-25. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.05966.x
  54. Pollin R. Degrowth versus Green New Deal: response to Juliet Schor and Andrew Jorgenson. Rev Radic Polit Econ. 2019;51(2):330-332. doi:10.1177/0486613419833522
  55. Eaton E. Approaches to energy transitions: carbon pricing, managed decline, and/or green new deal? Geogr Compass. 2021;15(2):e12554. doi:10.1111/gec3.12554
  56. Hickel J, Kallis G. Is green growth possible? New Polit Econ. 2020;25(4):469-486. doi:10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964
  57. D’Alessandro S, Cieplinski A, Distefano T, Dittmer K. Feasible alternatives to green growth. Nat Sustain. 2020;3(4):329-335. doi:10.1038/s41893-020-0484-y
  58. Schmid B. Degrowth and postcapitalism: transformative geographies beyond accumulation and growth. Geogr Compass. 2019;13(11):e12470. doi:10.1111/gec3.12470
  59. Barry J. Climate change,‘the cancer stage of capitalism'and the return of limits to growth. In: Pelling M, Manuel-Navarrete D, Redclift M, eds. Climate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis; 2012:129-142. doi:10.4324/9780203146118
  60. Hanahan D, Weinberg RA. The hallmarks of cancer. Cell. 2000;100(1):57-70. doi:10.1016/s0092-8674(00)81683-9
  61. Pavlova NN, Thompson CB. The emerging hallmarks of cancer metabolism. Cell Metab. 2016;23(1):27-47. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2015.12.006
  62. Harvey D. The Condition of Postmodernity. Vol 14. Oxford: Blackwell; 1990.
  63. Jameson F. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press; 1991.
  64. Weis T. The accelerating biophysical contradictions of industrial capitalist agriculture. Journal of Agrarian Change. 2010;10(3):315-341. doi:10.1111/j.1471-0366.2010.00273.x
  65. IPES-Food. COVID-19 and the Crisis in Food Systems: Symptoms, Causes, and Potential Solutions. IPES-Food website. http://www.ipes-food.org/pages/covid19#.   Updated April 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020.
  66. Haley E, Caxaj S, George G, Hennebry JL, Martell E, McLaughlin J. Migrant farmworkers face heightened vulnerabilities during COVID-19. J Agric Food Syst Community Dev. 2020;9(3):1-5. doi:10.5304/jafscd.2020.093.016
  67. Yearby R, Mohapatra S. Structural Discrimination in COVID-19 Workplace Protections. Health Affairs Blog. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200522.280105/full/.  Updated May 29, 2020. Accessed January 15, 2020.
  68. Khorsandi P. WFP Chief Warns of ‘Hunger Pandemic’ as Global Food Crises Report launched. https://insight.wfp.org/wfp-chief-warns-of-hunger-pandemic-as-global-food-crises-report-launched-3ee3edb38e47.  Updated April 22, 2020. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  69. Reinicke C. US Weekly Jobless Claims Hit 1.4 Million, More Than Economist Forecasts. Business Insider website. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/us-weekly-jobless-claims-filings-unemployment-insurance-recession-economy-coronavirus-2020-7.  Updated July 2, 2020. Accessed 8 July 2020.
  70. Zhou L, Amaria K. The Current Hunger Crisis in the US, in Photos. Vox website. https://www.vox.com/2020/5/9/21251895/food-banks-lines-pandemic.  Updated May 9, 2020. Accessed May 25, 2020.
  71. Loopstra, R. Vulnerability to Food Insecurity Since the COVID-19 Lockdown. London: The Food Foundation; 2020.
  72. Ahmed F, Islam A, Pakrashi D, Rahman T, Siddique A. Determinants and Dynamics of Food Insecurity During COVID-19. Users.monash.edu website. http://users.monash.edu/~asaduli/pub/foodsec-covid.pdf.  Updated May 2020. Accessed June 13, 2020.
  73. Cook CD. Farmers Are Destroying Mountains of Food. Here's What to do About it. The Guardian. May 7, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/07/farmers-food-covid-19.  Accessed May 20, 2020.
  74. Loker A, Francis C. Urban food sovereignty: urgent need for agroecology and systems thinking in a post-COVID-19 future. Agroecol Sustain Food Syst. 2020;44(9):1118-1123. doi:10.1080/21683565.2020.1775752
  75. Wallace R. Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. NYU Press; 2016.
  76. Wallace R, Liebman A, Chaves LF, Wallace R. COVID-19 and circuits of capital. Mon Rev. 2020;72(1):1-13. doi:10.14452/mr-072-01-2020-05_1
  77. Abbasi K. Covid-19: social murder, they wrote-elected, unaccountable, and unrepentant. BMJ. 2021;372:n314. doi:10.1136/bmj.n314 
  78. Kaplan J. Business Wire: Billionaires Made $3.9 Trillion During the Pandemic—Enough to Pay for Everyone's Vaccine. Business Insider website. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/billionaires-made-39-trillion-during-the-pandemic-coronavirus-vaccines-2021-1?r=US&IR=T.  Updated January 27, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2021.
  79. Polanyi K, MacIver RM. The Great Transformation. Vol 2. Boston: Beacon Press; 1944:145
  80. Evans P. Is an alternative globalization possible? Polit Soc. 2008;36(2):271-305. doi:10.1177/0032329208316570
  81. Linebaugh P. Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance. Oakland, CA: PM Press; 2014.
  82. De Angelis M. Separating the doing and the deed: capital and the continuous character of enclosures. Hist Mater. 2004;12(2):57-87. doi:10.1163/1569206041551609
  83. Bollier D. The Commons as a Template for Transformation. Great Transition Initiative; 2014
  84. Bollier D, Helfrich S. The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Levellers Press; 2014.
  85. Ostrom E, Gardner R, Walker J, et al. Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources. University of Michigan Press; 1994.
  86. Wright EO. Envisioning Real Utopias. Vol 98. London: Verso; 2010.
  87. Wright EO. How to Think About (And Win) Socialism. Jacobin website. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/04/erik-olin-wright-real-utopias-capitalism-socialism/.  Updated April 27, 2016. Accessed February 21, 2021. 
  88. Gibson-Graham JK. The end of capitalism (as we knew it): a feminist critique of political economy. Capital & Class. 1997;21(2):186-188. doi:10.1177/030981689706200111
  89. Fisher M. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books; 2009. doi:10.1163/156920612x632827
  90. Dardot P, Laval C. Commun: essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle. Paris: La Découverte; 2015.
  91. Maxton-Lee B. Activating responsible citizens: depoliticized environmentalism in hegemonic neoliberalism. Democratization. 2020;27(3):443-460. doi:10.1080/13510347.2019.1710489
  92. Moragues-Faus A. Emancipatory or neoliberal food politics? exploring the “politics of collectivity” of buying groups in the search for egalitarian food democracies. Antipode. 2017;49(2):455-476. doi:10.1111/anti.12274 
  93. Engel-Di Mauro S. Urban community gardens, commons, and social reproduction: revisiting Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero. Gend Place Cult. 2018;25(9):1379-1390. doi:10.1080/0966369x.2018.1450731
  94. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). General Comment No. 12: The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11 of the Covenant). https://www.refworld.org/docid/4538838c11.html.   Published May 12, 1999. Accessed July 17, 2020.
  95. Baruchello G, Johnstone RL. Rights and value: construing the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights as civil commons. Stud Soc Justice. 2011;5(1):91-125. doi:10.26522/ssj.v5i1.994
  96. Macpherson CB. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1962.
  97. Holt-Giménez E, van Lammeren I. Can food as a commons advance food sovereignty?  In: Vivero-Pol JL, Ferrando T,  eds. Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons. Taylor & Francis Group; 2018. p. 313-328.
  98. Agarwal B. Food sovereignty, food security and democratic choice: critical contradictions, difficult conciliations. J Peasant Stud. 2014;41(6):1247-1268. doi:10.1080/03066150.2013.876996
  99. Jansen K. The debate on food sovereignty theory: agrarian capitalism, dispossession and agroecology. J Peasant Stud. 2015;42(1):213-232. doi:10.1080/03066150.2014.945166
  100. Mayes C. Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession and Sovereignty in Australia. Rowman & Littlefield; 2018.