On middle-class foodyism

This is a post about a stereotype – the stereotype of the middle-class foodie: the organic, fair trade, quinoa-munching, camomile-sipping, bread-making, home-brewing, veg patch-loving middle-class foodie. But, it’s also about much more than this figure of ridicule. It’s about a wider and deeper cynicism towards anyone who seeks to take a principled, ethical stance in their life around issues concerning the ecologically and socially unjust forms of production of food, energy, and other commodities in our society. What I want to argue is that, though there can be a problematic side to this kind of character, and sometimes inaccuracy in their reasoning, their ridicule says much more about the cynicism, misanthropy, and lack of hope and imagination that continues to plague our society and impede the possibility of positive societal transformation.

So, confession time. I am that middle-class foodie. I am vegan. I make my own bread. I drink hemp milk! I have foraged. I have made elderflower cordial. I own a collection of around ten different herbal teas. I’m really excited about permaculture. I buy my fruit and veg from a local co-operative. And I am totally proud of all this. I am proud that I feed myself and my children with the best quality produce. I am proud that I know how to cook it in exciting and tasty ways. I am proud that I try to minimize waste and consume ethically (though, as I’ve argued before, ‘ethical consumption’ is, ultimately, an oxymoron within capitalism). I am proud…and I am conscious of my good fortune. For it is a matter merely of good fortune that I find myself with the material ability to afford good food and the opportunity to educate myself about my food. It is a matter of good fortune that I have the time to shop, cook, and eat better.

In a society in which the experience of life for most is that of a chronic lack of time and money, I and my fellow middle-class foodies are a privileged breed. We are open to ridicule and contempt. But to ridicule or have contempt for people like me is to confuse the symptom with the disease. The disease is a social system that steals our time, limits and perverts our education, depletes our seas and soil, tortures our fellow creatures, and produces and wastes mountains of unhealthy food. It has rendered so many of us in the UK unable to cook and to afford decent produce, and has left us strung out, malnourished, sick, and fattened up by industrially-processed muck. The ‘symptom’ is the individual and the group able, by dint of superior access to time, education, and money, to raise themselves above this scene of devastation and smell (or taste) the fresh air of human health and freedom. It is our collective inability to see beyond surface appearances that makes us direct our sense of irritation, anger even, against the privileged middle-class rather than against the system.

Intriguingly, I do not detect similar contempt toward the eating habits of the seriously rich, those with far more money, but far less time on their hands than the middle-class types of places like West Oxford where I live. The highest earners today – the bankers, the corporate lawyers, etc – are money-rich/time-poor. Consequently, you’ll find them not so much baking their own bread or foraging, but spending fortunes in London’s top restaurants on the world’s remaining sturgeon or blue-fin tuna. Ethical consumption for the middle-class; Conspicuous consumption for the ruling class, I would suggest. Not that this binary is clear-cut. You can certainly have conspicuous ethical consumption!

I am a socialist. This means I desire a far more egalitarian society. But I wish to level up, not down. Since we must have an environmentally and socially sustainable system, it will have to mean an end to unsustainable consumption. But, I desire a social system that substitutes the right to consume unsustainably with the incomparable right to time. Put another way, the freedom we lose to buy as much crap as we want will be replaced by the freedom to live how we wish, to develop our individual and collective potential, to satisfy our physical, cultural, social, spiritual interests, passions, and dreams. This is why, I think, Oscar Wilde described socialism as the only system capable of cultivating true ‘individualism’.

Behind the stereotype of the middle-class foodie lies the deeper truth that if you give any human being greater access to time and education, they’ll generally start feeding their body and brain with better stuff! Unfortunately, since even a middle-class education is not of a critical nature (i.e. even at universities today, they are unlikely to be exposed to theories that encourage deeper questioning and holistic, structural thinking), a myopic and superficial analysis of social relations dominates middle-class thinking too. Consequently, just as the rich think they are rich cos they’re the cleverest, hardest-working, and, generally, the best, and just as the poor think they are poor cos they’re the stupidest, laziest, and the worst, the middle-class are too often prone to thinking that the rich are bastards eating the planet and the poor are feckless idiots too lazy and stupid to shop properly and cook. At best, their responses can be Jamie Oliver-style well-meaning, but condescending interventions that fail to address the root causes of health and food inequality. Middle-class foodyism can also too often be corrupted by our society’s extreme individualism and consumerism to become a self-indulgent parody in which food becomes a commodity fetish. The middle-class are as much in need of critical pedagogy as anyone else.

I reject outright any notion that being a middle-class socialist means suffering in solidarity. Eating crap white bread and take-away kebabs would merely constitute a perverse and useless form of patronising charity. Instead, I believe that we need to argue the case for a society in which every single person has sufficient time and education to make their own choices about food, and not just food but every aspect of their own lives. This won’t happen under capitalism. Only by transcending the profit motive can we imagine and create a world without crap food and a production system destroying people and planet. Only by transcending capitalism can we imagine and create a world in which we all have ample time to live, love, and learn. Right, where’s me baba ganoush!

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