In Defense of a Culinary Left
When did the left lose its senses? Ever since the Jacobins saw an act of treason in the sharing of food, the main ingredient of activism has remained a fateful kind of soberness. According to Mikhail Bakunin, a true revolution- ary “has no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution.” Similarly, in Lenin’s favorite novel, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863), the protagonist Lopukhov is presented as a revolutionary hero for giving up sensual pleasure in the name of The Cause. All too often, any allegedly excessive enjoyment of art, music, sex or food has been measured against a standard of pure revolutionary dedication, an austere form of activism that condemns the world of the senses as a ‘bourgeois decadence.’ But the Archive of Leftism still contains traces of its erased desires. A look at the banquets of the French Revolution, the Socialist soup kitchens of the 19th century, and today’s social movements will show us that sharing a meal is wholly compatible with the revolution.For many socialists, communists, and even anarchists, a dividing line is still drawn at pleasure, which operates as a symbol of bourgeois life and is by definition only open to the privileged. Sensory deprivation distinguishes the serious activist from the lifestyle leftist; the dedicated socialist from just another hipster. Our taste, it would seem, must somehow run against what we stand for: pleasure as problem. Yet contrary to what orthodox Marxists keep repeating, revolution is far from a fully rational endeavor. Instead, we can conceive of revolution it as a nodal point of desire– a solidarity with the desires of all that almost takes up a bodily quality. But how do we tell desire from decadence, pleasure from privilege? Some demonstrations have been critically compared to music festivals, and you can hear complaints that people in campus during Occupy Wall Street Occupy camps had too much fun. Some, like the Lacanian psychoanalyst and communist thinker Slavoj Zizek, would probably argue that much activism is just another decadent hobby, for people who are ‘struggling’ for a ‘decaffeinated’ type of revolution but really are just having a fun time with friends. “The problem for us is not are our desires satisfied or not. The problem is how do we know what we desire,” Zizek explains, and leans back in his armchair. Actually, those people are no rebels but obedient to their superego’s command to enjoy, thereby keeping the logic of capitalism fully intact.
There is no point in denying that taste has indeed been a marker of class-distinction and a disciplinary power that is always at work, from breakfast to dinner. Such a view does not recognize the multiple ways in which sensual pleasure can itself be transformed: pleasure as contestation. According to a famous anecdote, Emma Goldman, a Russian-born American anarchist of the late 19th century, was approached by a comrade while dancing wildly at an anarchist party. When he asked her to stop, Goldman responded, “if I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” If it was not for the unleashing of such desires and their possibility in everybody, she argued, what was the revolution supposed to be good for? Liberation can hardly take its starting point in repression. There are options beyond the futile-but-fun hippie-activism so easily co-opted by economic interests and the relentlessly anti-fun sobriety of socialist ideologues. There can be an effective Left that also knows how to listen, dance, desire and eat. The question is not only what we eat but how we eat it and with whom. Is our food a commodity or a communal experience? Under what conditions was it produced, and how exclusive is its enjoyment? If freedom, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, is always the freedom of those who think differently, it must also be the freedom of those who desire differently, feel differently, taste differently.
A SHORT HISTORY OF A CULINARY LEFT
The debate about the place of sensual pleasure, between an idealized communal transcendence on one side and a rejection of conspicuous privilege on the other, is as old as the political Left itself. Even in the French Revolution, the enjoyment of good food was a hotly contested issue. A report from the Jacobin Society of Paris from 1793 celebrated shared food in the most lofty terms: “The great family was united and we saw the whole of her share the greatest delicacies of the civic banquet. How beautiful it was to observe this meal where the intermingled citizens were nothing else than a society of true brothers! Everything was enjoyment (jouissance) for the sensual observer!” But by July 1794, when the Jacobin Terror had reached its climax, sharing good food was no longer considered a legitimate activity for revolutionaries. A newspaper announced a ban on civic dinners in Marseille, as they supposedly served the “aristocrats” to “seduce the friends of liberty.” “The meals thus become signs of a perfidious reconciliation, the precursors of counter-revolution,” for which reason the Committee of Public Safety would have to adopt “rigorous repressive measures” against them.
A few decades later—and certainly inspired by the civic banquets of the revolutionary days—the socialist thinker Charles Fourier developed a whole theory of “gastrosophy.” In the utopian community of Harmony which he envisioned, cooking was to be recognized as “the most revered” of all the arts. Even the poorest of Harmony’s citizens would have “twelve types of soup, twelve varieties of bread and wine, and twelve dressings for meat and vegetables.” Shared food would always go together with good company and thus serve as the “elementary form of Harmonian sociability.” The breakfast was to be replaced with what Fourier called the “gastronomic antenna,” “a very delightful imbroglio” to settle conflicts, introduce visitors and organize civic affairs. In the eyes of the philosopher, the enjoyment of food represented “the first and last pleasure of man, the one that delights him from birth right up until his last hour:” a pleasure that already connects the young and the old, the rich and the poor, in one passionate union. The sharing of food, however, would have nothing to do with charity: inequalities would be structurally overcome and food would be rescued from its debased status as a mere commodity. Ultimately, Fourier’s sense of justice has a lot to do with a passionate recognition of everybody’s right to a good meal. In the union of the shared meal, we might also—like the residents of Fourier’s utopia—live our desires and share transformative moments across subjects.
It should be no surprise, then, that many activists throughout the centuries have already felt a glimpse of utopian gastrosophical pleasures in the here and now. In her work On Revolution, Hannah Arendt notes that “in every genuine revolution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” “councils, Soviets and Rät/e” sprang up as the “spontaneous organs of the people.” Our imagination would have to be rather poor to not see these revolutionaries united over dinner. For Arendt, there is a vital experience of political liberty, of direct face-to-face participation in the public realm that is particularly alive in those moments of revolutionary spontaneity –an experience which she refers to as “public happiness.” If we look at the practices of revolutionary multitudes and social movements in the last two centuries and their ways of sharing food, we might get a more vivid taste of what she meant. Let’s not forget: The 1848 revolution was triggered by (admittedly bourgeois) people sharing meals – in the so-called French banquet campaign. Many socialist movements of the 19th century then made their own soup kitchens a central rallying point for activists, far from engaging in conservative charity.
This tradition survives today in many different political arenas. If you go to a French mass demonstration, say a CGT union strike, you are likely to encounter a ‘soupe populaire’: a shared meal—cheap but delicious—that is provided for free, keeps everybody warm in the street, and easily serves as an ice-breaker between the assembled activists. In Istanbul in 2013, Mus- lim activists blocked the redevelopment of Gezi Park by breaking their Ramadan fast with civic dinners in the street, fiercely demonstrating the possibility of food as a means of contestation.The transnational squatters movement has even produced its own cooking books and German activists have contributed the term Volxküche (short VoKü, “people’s kitchen,” a joyful play on the otherwise problematic word Volk) for the squatter cuisine.
WE ARE WHAT WE EAT: IMAGINING A MICROPOLITICS OF SHARED FOOD
At a time in which we are indeed conditioned to enjoy but simultaneously limited to live our desires within the framework of consumer capitalism, the question of pleasure must be regarded as far more than a marginal topic for today’s social movements. It is without a doubt that the central task of a ‘culinary’ Left remains the struggle for the eradication of hunger in a world of 805 million people without sufficient access to nutrition. Important questions on vegetarianism and ecology, or the fair conditions of production for food, have by now entered mainstream political discourse and keep on growing in resonance. Nevertheless, our attention to food should also go beyond solidarity with those who suffer hunger and performing immensely important structural analyses.
The history of social and political struggles is also a story of communal meals, of micro-politics that transform our desires in a new encounter: from French revolutionaries’ civic banquets to soup kitchens in the squats of New York, Berlin or Athens. Such encounters, of activists who cook together, eat together and get to know each other as people beyond their mere functions in a socio-economic machinery, can represent considerable acts of contestation in and of themselves. The repression that civic banquets have undergone in the past is one illustration of this capacity. Encounters with strangers around a bowl of soup in the street can serve to interrupt the logic of rule that otherwise structures our lives. In that sense, 19th century American anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews spoke of the dinner party as the model for a new society in the shell of the old, while Hakim Bey regards “banquets” and “old-time libertarian picnics” as “already ‘liberated zones’ of a sort.” Anyone who flatly ridicules communal meals as the self-important activity of privileged foodies does injustice to the specific ways in which the enjoyment of food—and any bodily pleasure more generally—can be transformed and politicized.
Such a micropolitics of food is of course always at danger of falling back into the decadence of the private circle, the commodification of human relations, and the exclusivity of privileged access to goods (including the privilege of buying biologically produced, fair-trade food at a higher price). A call for a culinary micropolitics that actually takes up a contestational quality must therefore always remain a risky and self-reflective undertaking.
At the very end of their illuminating book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri speak about the Multitude that poses “against the misery of power the joy of being.” For Hardt and Negri, “this is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.” It is time to get rid of our guilty conscience every time we enjoy good food. Through carefully maneuvering the space between the extreme points of exclusive privilege and collective asceticism, a whole world of shared pleasure in between emerges. An unapologetic affirmation of pleasure does not have to come at the cost of system-reproducing indulgence or ineffectiveness, as the old guardians of pure revolution try to make us believe. Instead, it can provide a taste of what a multitude can do together: creating contestational forms of sociability, and experiencing a shared type of liberty that approaches “public happiness.”