Talking With RPCV author Robert Albritton

A few weeks ago, Phil Damon (Ethiopia 1963–65) wrote a review of Let Them Eat Junk: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity by let-them-eat-junkRobert Albritton (Ethiopia 1963–65) for Peace Corps Worldwide. Phil was nice enough to contact Robert again to interview him. Special thanks to both Robert and Phil, two RPCVs who are still doing their best.

Phil Damon: Well, Rob, since this interview is for, maybe we should get this question taken care of right away: how did your Peace Corps experience shape your sensibility in directions that shaped your career and ultimately this admirable book?

Robert Albritton: First I want to thank you for writing such a thoughtful review of my book, and for formulating the questions of this interview. There were three formative experiences that had particularly strong influences on my thinking as a young man. First, I studied at UC Berkeley and lived in the International House from 1961 to 1963. I met students from all over the world and this challenged my naïve and apolitical upbringing, opening my mind to at least consider a host of new perspectives. One perspective that became increasingly powerful was a commitment to a sort of international humanism, the core of which are ideals of equality and democracy. As a result, when President Kennedy launched the Peace Corps in 1962, I immediately decided to join once I had graduated from UC Berkeley. After completing a very thorough training program at UCLA in summer of 1963, I, along with approximately 150 others, headed to Ethiopia, mostly to expand their education system. I ended up teaching political science courses in newly founded University Extensions, the first year in Harar and second in Asmara. While teaching in Ethiopia, I remember being told that a recent UN study had come to the conclusion that by using hybrid seeds, petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation, and tractors, Ethiopia had the potential to produce enough food to feed all of Africa! The enormous contradiction between such statements and subsequent history eventually became seared into my memory.

PD: As you know, I was blown away by the research you brought to the book. And while your impressive previous scholarship seems to have focused mainly on a Marxian view of political history, from the looks of your own earliest entries in the extensive bibliography, you’ve had an interest in “agrarian capitalism” at least from the early 90s.

Since this book marries your expertise in understanding capitalism in general-economically, politically, historically-with your specific concerns about the global food crisis, would you say, also given your emeritus status academically, that the book was a kind of personal “act of love,” applying “theory” to this practical, and also imminent emergency?

RA: When I retired from York University’s Political Science Department after teaching political theory and political economy for 36 years, I had more time to do research and writing. Previously most of my work was very theoretical, and I decided it was time to direct my attention to something more down to earth. I had many influences directing my attention towards food, not the least of which was my wife’s career  teaching food and nutrition at Ryerson University in Toronto. Now that I was retired, I could devote most of my waking hours to researching and writing this book on the food system-a topic that turned out to be far more extensive than my initial expectations. Indeed, the more I researched the topic, the more I discovered the numerous interconnections among our ecological crises, our social and physical health crises, and our global food system. I hope my book can contribute to a growing wake-up call that will bring about a refocus of human intelligence and material wealth towards reshaping the food system and the capitalist economy that it is embedded in.

PD: There is always a feeling of doing insufficient justice to a book in any review, but in this case I felt that way in the extreme-and not only because of all of the factual data that begs to be shared. For example, I was tempted to launch into a summary of your presentation of capital’s deep structures and their destructive tendencies, the seven main headings of which you outline lucidly and cogently in chapter two.

Then in chapter three, you repeat the outline but expand on it, demonstrating how each heading relates to our recent (’46-’70) “golden age” of capitalism, which you label the phase of consumerism. Can you say a bit about the tactical decision to do that?

RA: The reason that two theoretical chapters are required is that the first outlines how the basic operating principles of capitalism impact on agriculture and food. The second, middle-level of analysis, explores how the basic principles get institutionalized in the US, the dominant capitalist power after World War II, and how the US becomes the center of capitalism and a capitalist food system that spreads to varying degrees to other parts of the world.

Many books on the food system are purely descriptive, and this makes them easily accessible to the average reader. In a way this is a good thing. I certainly would not set out to make my book inaccessible. At the same time, I wanted to illustrate the impact that our capitalist economy has had and is having on our food system. It seemed to me that this could be my particular contribution, even though the two theoretical chapters are more demanding than the rest of the book.

PD: It’s hard not to read a new book without thinking of its marketability, yet with yours the question comes even more urgently to mind. This is partly, of course, because it is a book one feels everyone should read. But then there is the double-pronged issue of the Marxian elements in your analysis and the harsh critique of capitalism, which has been inculcated into our thinking to be virtually synonymous with democracy. How do you account for what you call the “demonization” of Marx in our culture?

RA: Philosophically Marx’s writings are a many splendored thing when one considers the enormous array of interpretations and great influence of his texts. He was demonized by the cold war, which connected him to the Soviet Union. I personally think that he has little to contribute to how democratic socialism might work, though he does offer some food for thought in this regard. I believe that his greatest achievement was in understanding how capitalism works in its inner most operating principles. I believe that no single thinker before or since sheds more light on the workings of capitalism. In my book on food, I extract those aspects of his theory that I think are most useful for understanding how capitalism has to a large extent made our food system what it is. The strength of Marx’s works lie much more with diagnostics than with prescriptions, and this is because he thought blue prints of the future are inherently authoritarian. For Marx, shaping the future by human agency should be the result of open democratic processes and not an imposition of a blue print by an elite.

PD: And again about Marx and corporate capitalism, is there a middle ground somewhere between the two that would enable a viable economic future?

RA: It is difficult to answer this question if one views Marx primarily as a diagnostician of past and present ills and not a prescriber of the future. Let me address the spirit of your question, however, by putting forward some very general changes that I would support. During the “cold war”, western economists often sharply contrasted “totalitarian command economies”, characteristic of the communist bloc, with “free market economies”, characteristic of the capitalist bloc. Today, the world capitalist economy ought to be labeled a “corporate command economy,” because large corporations run by small elites have way too much unaccountable power to command the future of humanity. Markets are now largely planning instruments utilized by corporations for creating both supply and demand. Large profits are made even when much larger social costs (externalities not included in market prices) will need to be paid by taxpayers and future generations. While in reality most markets have never worked any where near the ideal of optimality that many economists have presupposed, now this ideal is so deeply ingrained that it can still be used to justify “free markets” when in reality we more and more see the corporate use of markets as planning mechanisms to maximize their short-term profits while creating huge long-range costs to society.

We need to turn this around, and we need to do it fast. This will require clearing our minds of the free market myth, so that we can begin to consciously use markets as democratic planning mechanisms to advance human and environmental well-being. Besides democratizing markets, we also need to democratize corporations and governments. Democratizing corporations means making their decision making transparent so that they can be held accountable by the public. The first step in democratizing governments is to find ways of preventing them being held for ransom by giant corporations.

In the current circumstances, it is particularly important to democratize the labour market. There will always be unmet social needs, and therefore, there should always be jobs to meet those needs. Existing labour markets are extremely ineffective ways of mobilizing human energies to meet human needs. Computer technology could be utilized to find new ways of prioritizing social needs and of mobilizing the human intelligence and material wealth to meet them. Anyone who wants to work and is able to work should never be unemployed unless it is to gain skills needed to meet particular needs, and such education should be paid just as work is.

Finally, and this will perhaps be the most difficult, we need to find ways to redistribute wealth globally in order to advance the equality that is necessary for democracy to be effective. Democratizing markets, corporations, and governments is, in my opinion, not necessarily a “middle way,” it is the best way that I can think of-a way that offers a just and humane way out of the myriad of crises that confront us.

PD: In your critique of capitalism, you say, “Ultimately indifference to use-value implies indifference to all human values that do not enter directly into profit making.” Please say a little about “use-value” and its applicability to corporate indifference in food-provisioning.

RA: Rational behavior under capitalism requires that capitalists continually shift production from goods and services that are unprofitable (and will, in due course plunge them into bankruptcy) to goods and services that are profitable. Since competition forces them to maximize short-term profits, it is this quantitative focus that becomes the overriding goal. For example, if a capitalist learns that by adding more sugar to baby food profits will increase both because sugar is a very cheap input and because babies will eat more of the product, then a rational capitalist would do this, despite many studies that show a craving for sugar that borders on addiction can be established very early in children through a diet of sugar dense foods. The capitalist cannot afford to be concerned with the lifetime of obesity and connected illnesses that such a diet might generate. In short, in order to be rational, a capitalist needs to focus on profits (quantity) and not the quality of life of humans (or use-values) unless that quality can be converted into profits.  Similarly, if the market for bibles is saturated, and there is a huge demand for pornography, a rational capitalist would shift production from bibles to pornography. Finally, if capitalist farmers profit from paying low wages to undocumented field workers, then any capitalist farmer who does not do this is likely to lose out to the competition.

PD: Let’s turn now to the triune crisis of global warming, pollution and peak oil. You say in the book: “Junk food epitomizes the current phase of capitalism which utilizes enormous amounts of energy without advancing the human flourishing of the vast majority of people in the world.” Please expand on this critical idea and also say a little something about agribusiness’ increasing dependence on petrochemicals and fossil fuels.

RA: The food crisis feeds the other crises which in turn feed it. The American food system is so dependent upon fossil fuels that it has been estimated that all known fossil fuel reserves would be exhausted in seven years were the whole world to adopt the US system. Indeed, at approximately one-third of the total, the food system contributes more to global warming than any other sector of the economy. At the same time global warming will reduce crop yields due to drought, higher temperatures, and in some cases flooding. To mention only two of many causes of pollution, the massive petro-chemical inputs of agriculture coupled with the pollution of bodies of fresh water by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) make the capitalist food system a major contributor to the toxification of the environment, which is now reaching alarming levels. Given the petroleum dependency of the food system, the price of food will go up with the price of petroleum and the use of food crop land for ethanol production will only push food prices yet higher. Declining yields due to global warming and extreme weather will also increase food prices. Without action now these price increases will soon be disastrous for the 40 percent of global population that lives on $2 or less a day.

The producers of junk food that profit from the ease with which people become quasi-addicted to sugar, fat, and salt provides consumers with lots of calories but few nutrients. Hooked on junk food and lacking the income to afford more nutritious food, people consume too many calories and not enough nutrients. This is a recipe for obesity, a weakened immune system, and ultimately illness and death. A report published by the American Medical Association claims that if current practices continue, one-third of American children born in the year 2000 will get diabetes. Even more serious than what some have called the “pandemic of obesity”, is the hunger and malnutrition suffered by over a billion people in the world. It has been estimated that during each half hour an average of 360 children under the age of five die of starvation or hunger-related illnesses.

PD: In my review I cited a list of seminal books on the subject of food alongside which yours deserves an honored place. Yet later it occurred to me that there was a progression among those books, from an emphasis in the middle of last century on individual self-discipline toward the corporatization of agriculture and the failure of government to regulate its excesses on the public’s behalf.

Thus, given that the “Food-Inc.” profiteers are taking advantage of the human preference for convenience and cheapness, in addition to seizing upon and exploiting the seemingly insatiable human appetite for sugar, fat and salt, what is the shape of things to come in your estimation? Is their hope, in your view, for reforms in regulation when we have a population so addicted to those substances and so addled by advertising that they think it’s their “democratic” right to feast all day on empty calories? Given that this is a public health issue now and no longer merely a personal one, I hope there is an answer.

RA: Democratic right is a powerful notion as is the concept of choice. But choice is an illusion if people don’t have the time or money to make healthy choices. What my book aims to do is to reveal and analyze the structures that shape and constrain individual choice, precisely so that we can more effectively exercise our democratic right to alter those structures.

Currently there is perhaps more activism to change the food system than any other issue, and much of this activism is bringing about change. At a global level the largest mass movement in the world is Via Campesina (The Peasant’s Way), which advocates food democracy. There are many ways of tackling the interlocking crises that we face, and because these crises are global, we need more and stronger global social movements. As more and more people are affected by these crises, I believe that effective movements for change are emerging and will emerge, and that their organization and power will be vastly increased by using computer technology as a mobilizing tool. The call to democratize corporations, markets and governments is a very general call, and that is because there are many ways to proceed. Democratic processes combined with trial and error will be important.

Because food is the basis of human health and well-being, it should become the center of our economic life. We need to find ways to make healthful foods affordable to everyone even if this requires subsidizing healthy food or subsidizing consumers so that they can afford healthy food. Subsidies are already widespread, but more often than not they are subsidies that make the rich richer or that support the profits of large corporations rather than subsidizing a sustainable food system that can provide healthy food for all.

To mention only a few specifics, we need to stop all marketing of junk foods to children, and we need to introduce food courses into school curriculums. We need an agriculture of family farms and cooperatives that become less and less dependent on fossil fuels, that enrich the soil with organic matter, that conserve irrigation water, and, that where needed, receive subsidies in order that farmers have a good standard of living and that young people be encouraged to take up farming as a livelihood. One could go on, but this is a start that indicates in a general way the sorts of changes to the food system that we need to pursue.

PD: Bob, thank you for your time on this interview, Woddehut. Erdatawo keff yale no.

RA: Phil, it has been my pleasure, Betam amessegginallehu.

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