Capitalism in a Mao jacket

December 7, 2011

It is about time that I shared some of my thesis findings. I started to think about it all again while reading Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel. In one of 10 novelas about the Asian American movement in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s, Yamashita relays a conversation between two college-age activist women. These women are incredibly dedicated to changing the system by understanding revolutionary theory and practicing it through activism. Ria has been working with  sweatshop seamstresses to start a collective company. In this scene, her friend Olivia bursts into the garment factory to feud over theory.

“So you’re organizing a cooperative, but you need to make sure you aren’t replicating capitalist models.”
Ria argued back, ” Of course we’re replicating capitalist models.  How are we supposed to pay ourselves? Do you have a better plan?”
“I saw that Mao jacket you designed.  You’re creating bourgeois fashion.”
“Yeah, and we’re turning Maoism into an exotic commodity.”
“That’s right. And that’s because you have no clear line.”
“Show me a clear line, and I’ll show you the tension on a zigzag.”

(Yamashita 2010: 388)

There is no clear line! There never is and there can’t be. There is a continuum from purely capitalist, profit-driven, individualistic business to totally cooperative economics. Businesses and individuals are constantly sliding along this continuum, never stopping. You have to settle somewhere on it yourself, and continually question your opinions against the reality of your economic situation.  It is much easier for Olivia to say that capitalism is bad than it is for Ria to create a socialist business in a capitalist country. At some point, idealism must be sacrificed for practicality. The hope is that not everything has to be sacrificed and that somehow a balance can be found so that folks can both make a living and change the world a little bit.

My thesis explored how farms can survive in the economy while also working to change it. Reading about the food movement that took place during much of the same time that Yamashita writes about, it became clear that surviving in the economy has been a major struggle for revolutionaries and farmers. In Appetite for Change, Warren J. Belasco describes how the most radical foodies, the ones who moved to communes, realized they were dependent on the very model they tried to undermine.  They could not produce everything they needed and had to turn to industrial food as a safety net.  Just as for Ria, the revolutionary drive was not backed with an economic plan.

In a way, economy is the perfect place to start for a revolution. First of all, on capitalism rest many things revolutionaries stand up against: inequality, imperialism, racism… Second of all, economy is what binds people together. We all depend on others for the material needs of our existence and happiness. This is the basis of all economic activity and the division of labor that has happened since the dawn of culture!  Capitalism masks mutual need and today products are not produced because they satisfy human needs, but because they can make someone money. However, there are people in capitalism who do not want to take advantage of others to get rich. People like Ria and Olivia, and many people of the food movement.

Foodies attach much more than a monetary value to food. The value is in the farmers, the local land, sustainable farming practices, sharing meals with friends, jump-starting farm businesses, feeding healthy food to children, regaining control over something dominated by big business, outdoor education, and the list goes on. Business models that put these types of values into the system can help change notions of capitalism, commodities, and relationships between people. These types of businesses can help build a new capitalism if we can begin to see capitalism as a tool to make change.

It is silly to deny dependence on capitalism and that capitalism works as a business model. Even as revolutionaries try to undermine it, they are dependent on it. Even as Ria developed a cooperative, it was reliant on the capitalist model for its business.  Instead of trying to uproot the system, we can work to create (and are creating), through successful, value-driven business, a revolutionary capitalism. Just as Ria and Olivia fight in I Hotel, entrepreneurs of this revolutionary capitalism need to debate about sliding too far to either side of the capitalist/cooperative continuum.

More practically, for CSA farms and other forms of local food distribution this means adopting some qualities of the capitalist market to keep customers happy, whether it be choice, convenience, or economies of scale. In addition though, revolutionary food businesses must work to change consumer notions of what food, farming, and economy are. CSA works to do this with the newsletter, sharing with folks the challenges of farming. A new distribution company Farmers to You does this through customer blogging about the transformative effect of their delicious food and model. The ways to approach this are endless, and I know the passionate, and smart foodie entrepreneurs will come up with things we cannot imagine. Importantly, the movement cannot just focus on the success of new local food businesses in the market, though that is incredibly important. It also cannot just be about revolutionary protest or symbolic expression of foodiedom, though those are important too. Crazy as it is, we need capitalism in a Mao jacket.


2 Responses to “Capitalism in a Mao jacket”

  1. Greg said

    First time seeing your blog. Finally! This is very well written, a typical confusion deftly handled. I wonder what you feel and think about as you use the term “foodie,” linked as it now often is to the more narrowly self-righteous group afforded better food choices by means of their class, race, place of residence, education, etc. I find myself wanting to distance myself from the label, find it too loaded now … Though I certainly identify with the radical political motivations you ascribe to it.

  2. Cathy Stanton said

    “Transform from within!” It’s so great to see you continuing to mull this stuff over, Signe. Seems that some distance from school and the thesis-writing process has helped to clarify some of the big questions you were wrestling with. This puts me in mind of the historic-preservation paradox that always gets thrown at grad students: If you have a historic ship that gets replaced plank by plank and rope by rope as things wear out, is it still the same ship? If we remake capitalism from within on this very nuts and bolts level, with more attention to the “triple bottom line” rather than just to profitability, is it still capitalism, or will we have created something new?

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