Bread. Cake. Cheese. Tacos. Hunger
Unruly politics is intimate politics.
“Let them eat cake”—A comment some say sparked the French Revolution, a movement that has been idealistically portrayed as the uprising of a downtrodden people against an unjust and frivolous monarchy. Most people remember the guillotine and beheaded nobles and forget that Revolution began with bread.
One version of the story goes that peasants, starving after multiple failed harvests, marched on the royal palace of Versailles, and demanded bread. To which the notoriously extravagant Queen Marie Antoinette leaned out the window and declared, “Let them eat cake”. Other retelling says that the comment came after a mob of bloodthirsty peasants with pitchforks led a frantic chase after the Queen through the palace. I prefer this version.
Either way, the events reflect a period in which individuals could make claims of the government to care for them and demand recompense face-to-face. A time when kings/queens held court and invited their subjects to voice their grievances. A time when William Wallace fought and died for the independence of his people. This intimacy between governor and governed has since faded in many parts of the world. The last time a major European ruler (I apologize for the Western focus of this paper) died in battle was in World War II. Now, most military duty is more of a publicity stunt than an actual military tour (e.g. Prince Harry). The last commander-in-chief of the USA military forces who served abroad was George W. Bush Senior in World War II. I don’t mean to equate military duty with intimate governance but I do think it reflects a change in the role of subject and ruler.
If people are starving today, there are complicated technocractic and bureaucratic mechanisms for determining which child is malnourished enough to receive aid and which child needs to go hungry for a few more days to qualify. In the USA, Donald Trump wants to cut funding to the food stamp program which provides critical assistance to the poorest subset of the population. Going hungry is no longer seen as a crime of the government but one of the individual and your hungry and poverty must be extensively proven before you can qualify.
Today we see still see hunger in a world where is it possible to feed everyone. On a comedy radio news program (they tell the funniest and most ridiculous news) I heard a story about how there is a cheese surplus in the USA. To help dairy farmers, the USDA is going to buy $20 billion dollars worth of cheese and distribute it to food banks across the country so that they can provide “high-protein food to the tables of those most in need” (even though they are cutting access to these programs simultaneously) and subsize the continued over production of cheese.
If we have moved from a moral economy to a market economy, why are there such huge surpluses—11 million POUNDS (the weight not the currency) of cheese sitting in warehouses when people are hungry but cannot afford to buy it and aren’t being given food stamps to exchange for it?
While talking about cheese surpluses is comical it is also depressing and infuriating.
But the pattern continues and involves.
They are designing tacos in Mexico City that cost $25,000 EACH just because they can and because someone will pay for it. Literally the entire point of this taco was to make it the most expensive possible. Apart from kobe beef and truffles it also has gold flakes. GOLD FLAKES. TO EAT. Just in case you were wondering, gold flakes have zero nutritional value and probably aren’t exactly pleasant to digest. So the only purpose to add them was to make the taco even MORE EXPENSIVE.
I find this as disgusting as I am sure the taco tastes. I forgot to say that it has civet POOP coffee in the salsa. Why? BECAUSE CIVET POOP COFFEE IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE.
I can’t claim moral perfection in this area or any other because I do throw away food that goes bad because I bought too much and I eat luxury items, like chocolate and ice cream, but I am frustrated by the lack of disgust expressed by others when they hear about 11 million pound surpluses of cheese or $25,000 dollar tacos. Instead, it is seen as something comedic. It’s not.
Returning to the French Revolution, I see two intersecting ideas: hunger and intimacy in political relations. We still have hunger but lack the political intimacy to storm palace gates and raise our pitchforks and I wonder if this breeds a sort of apathy. We are so far removed from the decision-makers that we feel we cannot make claims of them or that we won’t be heard. Yes, we sign petitions and we go to marches and we call our local representatives but I think a few more pitchforks might be more effective.
Unruly politics is intimate politics.
Farber, M. (2016) “USDA to Buy 11 Million Pounds of Cheese to Combat Surplus | Fortune.com,” http://fortune.com/2016/08/24/usda-buy-cheese-surplus/ (accessed June 1, 2017)
Martin, J. (2017) “A resort in Mexico is selling a $25,000 taco that features Kobe beef, caviar and gold leaf,” https://www.lonelyplanet.com/2017/03/02/resort-mexico-25k-taco-kobe-beef-caviar-gold-leaf (accessed June 1, 2017)
Thompson, E.P. (1971) “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century on JSTOR,” Past & Present 50: 76–136