NEW BOOK: Unsettling Food Politics

UPDATE: There were some teething issues regarding the cost of postage to Australia, I believe these have been resolved.

Also, in addition to the 60% discount for hardback there is a 30% discount code for e-book – UFP30.

60% off discount Unsettling Food Politics

I had the initial idea for this book in 2013. In December 2014 I pitched it to the series editors during the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. Almost five years later, my book – Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession and Sovereignty in Australia – is being released by Rowman & Littlefield.

During that five years, there were many changes to the scope and direction of the book. I could probably spend another five years making further changes. Fortunately deadlines meant that was not possible. I’ll post more on the back story later. For the moment here is the synopsis and some very kind endorsements.

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Synopsis

This book uses social and political theory to critically examine the historical constitution of contemporary alternative food discourses. While alternative food activists appeal to food sovereignty and agrarian discourses to counter the influence of neoliberal agricultural policies, these discourses remain entangled with colonial logics of sovereignty and dispossession of indigenous peoples. In particular, this book addresses the influence of Enlightenment ideas of improvement, the use of agriculture to establish ownership, and the production of a white population in Australia. In combination with this critical history, this book brings continental political philosophy into conversation with Indigenous theories of sovereignty and alternative food discourses in order to open new spaces for thinking about food and politics in contemporary Australia.

Endorsements

The inter-disciplinary nature of the work is reflected in the generous endorsements from a variety of scholars from different disciplines.

Mayes’ book is an important and, yes, unsettling reminder that in the Australian context, too, a return to smallholder farming as an antidote to the world’s food woes, is a return to an imaginary thick with dispossession and unfree labour.

Julie Guthman, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Too often debates around food focus on the individual consumer and consumer choice without acknowleding the way in which those choices are determined by the culture of possibilities in which the consumer is situated. The impact of current food practices on health, the environment, and social inequity cannot be addressed merely by changing individual habits; rather, food justice will require fundamental changes in the systems of production and distribution that determine what and how we eat.

This important and timely book exposes the complicity of commodity agriculture not only in the global obesity crisis and environmental injustice, but also in the food insecurity of vulnerable populations. Drawing on the resources of Foucault, Mayes demonstrates convincingly the role of agriculture in the project of colonialism and its historic injustices. Though he focuses primarily on Australia, his analysis of the way in which contemporary agricultural practices reflect racism and the dispossesion of indigenous peoples has a global reach.

Mayes does not only offer a critique of the provision of food as a biopolitical act that privileges some bodies over others; he also offers positive strategies for transforming our current food culture in order to address the injustices inherent in it. As he argues, by recovering the knowledges of indigenous peoples and by giving the marginalized a place at the table where decisions are made, we may be able to revolutionize current food practices in ways that will not only address inequity, but also improve the well-being of each and all.

Mary C. Rawlinson, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Philosophy, Stony Brook University

Unsettling Food Politics is an extraordinary rethinking of food sovereignty politics beyond formal sovereignty structures and discriminatory discourses of settler-colonial states. Fashioning a reflexive historical method to construct a substantive sovereignty of indigeneity, Mayes raises profound ethical questions for food sovereignty movements and practices within states and farming systems founded on indigenous subjugation. This is powerful food for thought.

Philip David McMichael, Professor, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

This is the book we have been waiting for. Unsettling Food Politics finally provides the critical study of settler-colonial food regimes that we so desperately need today. Historically grounded and well argued, this book is essential reading.

Thomas Nail, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Denver

Unsettling Food Politics models a radically different conception of political responsibility. He achieves this by means of a brilliant, and wholly convincing, double movement. One the one hand, Mayes widens the net of our complicity in Indigenous dispossession beyond what many are likely to find comfortable – as he puts it, unforgettably, “If you eat, you are involved in settler-colonialism”. On the other, he insists that any credible response must proceed from the acknowledgement of the moral primacy of the First Peoples of this land, their claim on the soil, their food practices. Mayes’s book is, in effect, a startling demonstration of what it would mean to accept the invitation extended by the framers of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, for non-indigenous Australians to join the First Peoples at a table they have set, to discover what it might mean, finally, to become political companions (in the original sense of the word). And perhaps that is the best description of what Mayes sets out in this remarkable book: a politics of companionability. Unsettling Food Politics is an extraordinary achievement.

Scott Stephens, Religion & Ethics editor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Co-host of The Minefield, on ABC Radio National

Small ‘l’ liberals, White Australia & Citizenship

Last Thursday Leigh Sales “grilled” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over proposed changes to Australia’s citizenship laws. Changes include a more stringent English language test, proof of integration into Australian society, and a four-year waiting period for permanent residents to apply for citizenship.

Sales considered these proposed changes to be an aberration of Australian liberalism and out of step with Turnbull’s own political philosophy.

Towards the end of the interview she asked:

LEIGH SALES: Before you became Prime Minister, your image was that your values put you in the small ‘l’ liberal tradition of Alfred Deakin and Malcolm Fraser.

Can you today name one policy position that you hold that aligns with that tradition rather than with the conservative wing of your party?

Ironically, the policy that Turnbull could name is the very policy under discussion. The tightening of citizenship laws, especially using racialised notions of cultural values, English-proficiency, and religious belief is deeply entwined with the legacy of Deakin.

Historian Joanna Cruickshank, quoted Alfred Deakin in an article on the enduring power of white supremacy in Australia. Speaking in 1903, Deakin said:

“A white Australia is not a surface, but it is a reasoned policy which goes down to the roots of national life, and by which the whole of our social, industrial, and political organisations is governed.”

Another Australian historian, Stuart Macintyre, quotes Deakin during a debate on the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) saying:

The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. A united race means not only that its members can intermix, intermarry and associate without degradation on either side, but implies one inspired by the same ideas, an aspiration towards the same ideals, of a people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought…

Turnbull is careful to avoid explicit appeals to race in the ethno-biological sense. However, his emphasis on the “unique” Australian values – “freedom, equality of men and women, mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy, a fair go” – serve as markers, shibboleths and “tone of thought” for indicating who is “in” and who is “out”.

The subtly of these dynamics was demonstrated when asked about who can integrate into Australian society. Turnbull gives a quick – “of course they are” – in response to Sales’ question “Are Jews who celebrate Hanukkah integrated into Australian cultures and values?” In contrast, he gives a bumbling non-response to the question about whether a woman who wears a headscarf is also integrated.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, people are free to wear whatever item of clothing they like. I mean, bear in mind, I say again and again, whenever I talk about Australian citizenship and Australian values, I say that the foundation of our success, our extraordinary success, is mutual respect.

And that means… It’s a two-way thing. You respect others in their diversity and they respect you. It’s also about respecting the equal rights of men and women. And that is vitally important.

This and other tortured debates about the right and wrong way of applying Australia values of a “fair go” and “mutual respect” reveals the implicit way some forms of life are accepted and others are rejected.

Turnbull’s proposed changes to the citizenship laws do not stray far from those who went before him. From Deakin to Abbott, Australian liberalism (spelled with a small or large ‘l’) has tied itself in knots to restrict the entry and freedom of racialised others. Despite his progressive shtick and love of public transport, Turnbull is no different.

Tony Abbott and the ‘Desire to Sacrifice’

Tony Abbott’s Address to Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent ExtremismJune 11, 2015.

In the end, though, the only really effective defence against terrorism is persuading people that it’s pointless.

We have to convince people that God does not demand death to the infidel.

Over time, we have to persuade people that error does have rights.

We need everyone to understand that it is never right to kill people just because their beliefs are different from ours.

Above all, we need idealistic young people to appreciate that joining this death cult is an utterly misguided and wrong-headed way to express their desire to sacrifice.

I don’t really have much of a comment on this expect to note that Tony Abbott’s political theology is both enigmatic and misunderstood – as evidenced by the two phrases in bold.

Depoliticising Indigenous Health via Consensus and Statistics

‘Politics’ has become a dirty word in Australia. To ‘politicise’ an issue is regarded as obfuscation. Good governments ‘govern’ and make ‘policies’. And good oppositions should work with governments to produce policies not debate endlessly, or so we’re told – usually by sitting governments.

While a lot of the ‘politics’ has devolved into oppositional tactics, political debate is essential for democracy.

At a minimum political debate should reveal the reasons and justifications for a particular policy. However, false consensus and the use of statistics are increasingly used to depoliticise debate of important issues. A recent example is Indigenous health.

Dangerous Consensus

indexIndigenous health is an area where “every opposition wants the government to succeed”. However, perhaps it is this consensus that has resulted in continual failure.

The 7th Closing the Gap report was presented in Parliament earlier this month. Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a sobering speech, noting that most targets were not on track “despite the concerted effort of successive governments since the first report”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, however, called on the Government to reverse the budget cuts to social services that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations and compound existing inequalities. Coalition MPs were unhappy with this suggestion. Some walked out and others said Shorten was playing political games on an important occasion.

The focus on consensus – that everyone wants to Close the Gap – has reduced Indigenous health and education to a national human interest story. It is bracketed from the realm of politics and serves either to inspire or a cathartic release. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that “human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote and scandal”.

In breaking with the ritual bipartisanship, where Opposition and Government solemnly agree that “more should be done but it is all so very difficult”, Bill Shorten re-politicised Indigenous health, if only briefly.

While liberal political philosophy values consensus established via publicly justifiable reasons, when consensus is assumed, publicly justifiable reasons become redundant. The presumption of consensus between the two major parties on indigenous health (and anti-terror legislation and asylum seeker policy) lowers the expectation of rigorous political arguments for or against certain positions.

Shorten broke with the consensus game and exposed the gap between Abbott’s rhetoric of “concerted efforts” and the first budget he delivered. Budgets are not simply economic documents, but reflect political and moral decisions about the lives that are valued.

Politics of Life Expectancy

Not unrelated, last month Treasure Joe Hockey attracted ridicule with his comment in a 3AW interview ‘that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable, that a child is being born that is going to live to a 150’.

Close-the-Gap

Hockey’s comment received some support from Professor Peter Smith who points to advances in medicine and public health as reasons to expect a continued increase in human life expectancy.

Professor John Quiggin however suggested that these claims are highly dubious and ignore the fact that the extension of life expectancy in the 20th Century ‘came from a reduction in death rates for the young.’

Will Cairns also pointed to the success of reducing death rates. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia that

our numbers plummet as we approach 100 years of age because all of these interventions [public health, disease treatment, nutrition] make no difference to the reality that we eventually wear out and die. Apart from the odd unverified outlier, only one person has ever been confirmed as living for more than 120 years.

Hiding Politics in the Statistics

Like the assumption of a consensus, Hockey’s use of life expectancy statistics to justify changes to the health system hides the political nature of these decisions.

Altering the financing of the health system through strategies such as co-payment schemes may appear reasonable. We are told Australia’s population is ageing and more people need to use the health system. However, what these statistics hide is the disparities of life expectancy in Australia.

While a child may be born today to live to 150 120, the latest ‘Closing the Gap‘ report reveals that Indigenous Australians born today can expect to live more than a decade less than non-Indigenous Australians.

The reality of significant gaps in life expectancy should be the cause for alarm and inspire the creation of a more equitable health system. Yet often population statistics hide the details. As Professor Mick Dobson notes, ‘Statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties who live diminished lives. We die silently under these statistics.’

Statistics: measuring and managing people

Vital statistics have been used to govern populations since the 17th century. But it’s important not slide over the word “statistics” too quickly as its literal meaning is hidden through repeated use.

Statistics is not simply about numbers but “state craft“. By knowing birth and death rates, and the incidence of disease it is possible to establish probabilities of epidemics, movement of people, and to order the State in a rational manner.

Vital statistics also enable the segmentation and division of populations. We see this all the time in professional sports. The explosion of statistics about batting averages, field goal percentage, or a players historical probability of kicking a goal from a certain angle against a certain team all help coaching staff to know who is performing and who is not.

Divisions in the details

Despite appearances, the use of statistics as political tool for governing a population is not neutral. Historian and philosopher Michel Foucault notes the way vital statistics introduce a power over life or biopolitics. The increased knowledge about nutrition, physiology and sexuality in the 19th century lead to the creation of norms from statistical averages that allowed political strategies to regulate human life. Close-the-Gap-005

Statistical analyses are used in public health to show the distribution of disease and enable interventions in populations. But as Foucault notes, these techniques also allow the identification of lives that are healthy and should be fostered and which lives are not performing and can be neglected.

A danger with the celebration of a statistically increasing life expectancy, is that it masks the very real health inequalities faced by many Australians. This is seen in a number of areas:

  • allow for certain health issues to be prioritised (e.g. ageing population), while others marginalised (e.g. health inequalities)
  • enable the allocation of funding towards some research (e.g. Medical Research Future Fund), while moving it away from other areas (e.g. preventive health)
  • suggest a particular financing models for the health system (e.g. co-payment), yet discount others (e.g. progressive taxation).

These are not simply economic decisions, but political and ethical decisions about which lives count. For too long the supposed neutrality of statistics and the assumption of consensus have allowed the political reality of Indigenous health inequalities to be hidden. To close the gap we need to recognise the historical and political processes that have made it and maintain it.