Accepted Paper:

The end of cheap food, capitalism's most enduring fiction  


Donald Nonini (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Paper short abstract:

One of capitalism’s key fictions is that despite the miseries that the working population experience in other areas of life, the food it consumes, at least, is “cheap.” But what if capital accumulation around food now is encountering physico- material limits in capital’s appropriation of nature?

Paper long abstract:

One of contemporary capitalism's key fictions is that, despite the miseries that the working population has inflicted upon it in other areas of life, the food it consumes, at least, is "cheap." As long as the majority of the population is able to buy sufficient food at affordable prices, capitalism, while not seen as admirable, is at least viewed as tolerable. However as EP Thompson's (1971) "Moral Economy of the English Crowd" indicated, capitalist and state legitimacies are thrown into question when this becomes impossible for a large proportion of the working population.

The question this paper poses is: What explains the logics of capital accumulation around food and food prices, and thus the legitimacy of capital and the state, in the contemporary period? Is this logic endogenous to the periodic crises of over-production (in food as in other commodities) to which industrial capital is prone, as Marx argued, or is this logic connected to the interrelationship between such crises and physico-material limits in the appropriation by capitalist agriculture of "nature," which some scholars argue are, over la longue durée, now being manifested (e.g. Moore 2015)? If the former thesis prevails then we have capitalist "business as usual"; however, if the latter thesis is more convincing, as argued here, then we may be seeing the end of a "Long 20th Century" of "cheap food," which has significant implications not only for capitalist and state hegemonies, but also for the survival of urban populations, among whom demand for food is concentrated.

Panel WIM-GF02
Fictions of capital: movements and modalities