Dear little Swallow," said the Prince, "you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. Ther...moreDear little Swallow," said the Prince, "you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there." - Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince.
There are at least four ways that this book can be read. Much depends, of course on the positioning of the reader.
First, straight up, as a catalogue of some truly horrific evidence of what human beings are able to do and endure on a daily basis. Not much point going into detail here; others on goodreads have done it much better...
Second, as a practical example of how to write incendiary literature in clear and simple prose.
Third, as an extended essay written in measured polemic, partly to help carry across some rather complex (but fragmented) ideas to a relatively broad Western readership.
Fourth, as a call to arms for socialists everywhere; to acknowledge, investigate and act on a central issue of political sociology within labour, i.e. overcoming the 'struggle over class' prior to the 'struggle between classes.'
Once the book is gutted the ideas are actually much more palatable and less hallucinatory than the examples that Davis selects and uses to bludgeon the reader with...although I suppose what can be judged as hallucinatory probably still depends on one's political leanings....
The entire premise of this book can be summed up in one paragraph early on, in the opening chapter:
"Rather than the classical stereotype of the labor-intensive countryside and the capital-intensive metropolis, the Third World now contains many examples of capital-intensive countrysides and labor-intensive deindustrialized cities. "Overurbanization," in other words, is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs. This is one of the unexpected tracks down which a neoliberal world order is shunting the future."
In other words, brace yourselves, wherever you are...slums, slums, slums, everywhere, as far as the eye can see...or the mind can fathom...
Davis' paradigm really does add another layer to the usual socialist questions about future economic change, the agrarian question, the revolutionary potential of labour and the immiseration thesis.
But there is also the issue of the Davis Paradigm's applicability to actual recent events after publication. Davis wrote and published the book in the midst of the foreign policy excesses of Bush II's administration, making a speculative link between slum-based political resistance and the 'war on terror'. However, it seems like much of what he warned about (in terms of the organised revolutionary potential of the informal sector) has already indeed taken place in the Maghreb/Mashreq (although I could be very wrong about drawing this parallel). Fast forward to the first phase of the 'Arab Spring' in 2011 - Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps even Libya (on the grounds of massive urban unemployment): in a way, Davis was there long before the Middle East watchers even knew what was happening before their very eyes...which probably isn't a bad thing...
For more constructive views, Davis has a much shorter and marginally more uplifting read in New Left Review 61, Jan-Feb 2010, entitled "Who Will Build the Ark?". Aside from what is a very astute assessment of the energy conundrum, he actually does offer some personal positive urban guidelines for living the good life, courtesy of the Constructivists. Not quite the doom-monger that some readers tend to make him out to be...(less)
The book is a cracker of an introduction to the international political economy of food, and then some. Its great strength lies in the attempt to weave both a very large body of (leftist) academic literature together with an accessible perspective for social activists (there is so much readable detail packed into this that I may eventually have to make a new set of notes out of the first set of notes I took). However, the skeleton of the argument seems fairly straightforward. So here is my half-baked caricature of some of his main arguments:
The current world food system structure first took shape about 150 years ago, thanks to industrialisation, colonialism and capital expansion. It has evolved to the point where it is driven less by states (assuming it ever really was in the first place) than by a now-infamous minority of gargantuan food companies feeding on monopoly rents and support from rich-country governments. While the biggest food mercantilists, the USA and the EU/EC, have long nurtured a bilateral trading relationship both conflictual and cooperative in nature, the food interests of the developing world have diverged in a number of ways that has made it extremely difficult for them to present a united front to push back against the market imbalances held in place by the western capitals. Some states, like Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia and Argentina (part of the so-called Cairns grouping), have become highly competitive agricultural goods exporters in their own right (often building on the old, monocropped colonial patterns of production they were saddled with in the first place). The majority of other states have not; some like India and China have, for their own political reasons, prioritized domestic food self-sufficiency over any attempt to export food for foreign exchange. Meanwhile, most others struggle to even feed themselves, relying on subsidised food imports (and other agricultural inputs) from the overflowing granaries of the West. This makes a common policy position for the 'South' rather tricky, to say the least.
By and large, the entire dominant 'grain-livestock complex', as Weis calls it, is argued to be completely unsustainable in many aspects; be it from an environmental point of view, in terms of social justice for most farmers, or in terms of food access for the heaving masses pushed off the land, jobless, semi-starving and banging on the doors of the rich states. There are good reasons why these issues have reached their apex at the WTO; and again why pursuing them at the level of the WTO is unlikely to bring about any real benefits for either producers or the vast majority of food consumers, with little cash to spare to begin with. Weis' recommendations are to pursue relocalization of food systems; networked social movements are already pointing the way forward, and peak oil will help take care of the rest.
Some of all this will probably seem fairly obvious for who follow the news closely (but maybe not so much here, in Singapore). But to have all this set down in one place is indeed very useful. Chapter 4 on food negotiations at the WTO was particularly gratifying to read, despite the relative lack of references cited.
Some fact-checking of the references cited might be needed to assess the validity of some key claims, particularly the generally positive assertions of the agro-ecology literature (ie. multicropping, pro-small farmer, local foods can feed enough mouths sustainably in today's world)...but these probably reflect more on my own dubious second-hand knowledge about the basics of farming, more than anything else...
If there are criticisms, they would include the concern that a book with such a broad and accessible scope does not pay enough attention to local nuances and often overlooks more complex narratives in favour of a strong dependency perspective...sometimes a bit too strong, I think. The Philippine land reform narrative does not really do justice to what happened during Marcos' time, as far as I know (pp. 94). Similarly, not all inequitable land reforms can be blamed on neoliberal agendas by the World Bank (pp. 122, 183); to use the Filipino example again, the state itself often seems to do the deed quite well enough on its own, eg. CARP under Aquino.
While Weis' argument that profiteering food companies manipulate diets and our demand for meat, processed products through marketing, lobbying etc is well taken (eg. China now, pp. 105-106), I do wonder whether it is all that simple...the upwardly mobile are not simply dupes, and often need to find outlets to express their desire to level out genuine material and social inequalities, particularly in the developing world. If it means eating more red meat, and smoking more expensive Malboros, just like the Europeans and Americans, then yes, why not? Why are Chinese architects copying UNESCO-certified Austrian villages ad verbatim for popular consumption back home? Perhaps at the end of the day it is often not the thing itself, but what it represents in different minds, societies...Veblen...
Of course, there are hard limits to such sympathies...particularly in the pockets of relative prosperity everywhere, where new ways of consuming have to be invented...rendered obsolete...and reinvented, endlessly.
How we arrive at modern, localized food systems, assuming we even want to get there, no one really knows...such is the great mystery, and tragedy, and hope, of collective political action as we know it...(less)