The Burner Episode #227: Behemoth Pulls the Peasant’s Plough?

‘Stare long enough at a bean, or a grain, or an ear of corn, and you’ll begin to see everything – the whole world – inside it.’ James Butler dives into pandemic food shocks and the deep links between capitalist farming and viral outbreaks.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Wednesday April 29. We are still in lockdown.

As the lockdown continues, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer weirdness of the routine we’ve settled into. In some ways, the death toll rises, failing after failing is thrown up and uncovered… And ministers just sort of stand there and shrug off questions in their daily briefings. It’s hard not to get the feeling that something is deeply amiss in our political and media system; half of which seems hypnotised by the makeshift blitz spirit, with pensioners circumambulating their gardens for the NHS and our own crap Churchill at the top of it all.

And when something which ought to be truly damning emerges, like in this week’s BBC’s Panorama, which exposed a truly catastrophic list of failures of preparedness and which laid the blame pretty squarely at the government’s feet – and not just this government, but the attitude of successive Tory governments – [it] just seems to emerge like a damp squib: under promoted, under examined, ignored. It’s like a Teflon government.

I think for those of us paying attention, it can be nearly pretty deranging to watch as issue after issue like this comes up and just floats away. One job of the opposition, of course, is to make stuff like this stick. And it’s a tricky job, especially in an international emergency, but it’s such an essential one. It would be good if they tried.

Where it has attracted attention, however, is on the right. The Guido Fawkes blog has been going after and doxing participants in the [Panorama] documentary for the high crimes of having political opinions – none of which, of course, are very flattering, valuable, favorable to the government. In a sense, it says something rather sad about the Guido Fawkes enterprise, which has of course always been right-wing but used to delight in exposing politicians from across the spectrum, but which has now descended into a rather tragic starry-eyed cheerleader for the blessed Boris.

In any case, it’s important to note the chilling effect here; that they go after and try to screw up the lives of people who speak out for daring to have, share and campaign on political positions – a basic and fundamental civic right. I wonder what it is about working in the NHS which may might make one sceptical about the Conservative Party or witness to the poisonous effects, the very sharpest of sharp ends, of the marketisation of the whole world. I wonder.

Yesterday I talked a little bit about the question of food and the coronavirus. Drawing from warnings from the UN food and agricultural organization that there is a serious risk of the food crisis as circulation stops during the pandemic.

Do go back and listen to that episode if you have a moment, but don’t worry, this section also stands alone.

Now, that warning from the UN is [prompted] by the destruction of food which can’t get to market because of a lockdown or can’t be harvested because the migrant workforce isn’t there to picket any longer. But it’s also about the geopolitics of food. The UN worries that the emergence from lockdown will lead to more isolationist policies and the shattering of food supply chains as nations hoard their resources and as the question of self-sufficiency and food security rockets up the agenda – fear of famine as well.

Importantly, outside a few export bans, mostly dotted around some former Soviet republics, these haven’t really happened yet. But this warning is important because [the UN are] highlighting the fragility of the food supply as well as the places its effects are likeliest to be felt – including but not limited to crisis-afflicted countries like Yemen.

So, [we can] already see a couple of ways of thinking about food as a commodity.

One is about how dependent the commodity is on the labour behind it; the labour which grows, harvests, packages, processes, ships, transports, stocks it on shelves, sells and prepares it in restaurants or home kitchens.

Another aspect is about food as an essential commodity, and therefore a resource. In a crisis, capacity for food production can be thought of much like the world market thinks of oil – a strategic resource as much as something to be traded. It’s commonplace, of course, that the world economy runs on oil – but, [on] a much more basic level, human beings, and therefore the working class, run on food.

That may seem so obviously true that it barely needs stating but “stare long enough at a bean, or a grain, or an ear of corn, and you’ll begin to see everything – the whole world – inside it.”.

Essential commodities reveal a great deal about the way in which societies are structured; the way they work and for whom they work. You could learn a lot from following the journey of a soybean or – better, a soy crop – to its various destinations – from staple food to vegan milk substitute, even to soy-based plastics.

But, at a more basic level, as I suggested yesterday, the possibility of crises within the food system might lead us to ask even more basic questions about how we produce food in the first place. That’s not just about the kinds of food we eat – although I think our dense, calorie-rich, often very highly processed food is intimately bound up with the way that we live our lives and the way that we work – but the very production methods, right at the level of farming, that we have underneath those foods which provide the variety of the supermarket, or the infinity of ready meals.

I can hear you wondering, what does this have to do with the coronavirus? And, of course, it partly has to do with the consequences of coronavirus and the way its circulation shock might affect food supply. But actually, when you delve back, back, back into the abode of production itself, it might also relate to where the virus itself comes from.

This pathogen is zoonotic, that is, it comes from animals and it has somewhere made the leap from animal into human. How did that happen? Well, [it’s] very likely it has something to do with our habit of cutting down dense wild forests, which are often viral reservoirs for plantation ecologies or homogenous livestock operations – effectively themselves huge viral breeding grounds.

As humanity pushes more and more into the last unexploited reserves of natural world, crossing those boundaries means shaking coronavirus free from the bat populations in which it likely originated to begin its long multi-species odyssey to becoming a global pandemic.

Now, racists like to call it the Wuhan virus because they say it emerged from the so-called wet markets, which they like to depict as a uniquely sinister Chinese evil. But [inaudible] these animal origin pathogens [are] increasingly common. The last global pandemic, the so-called Spanish flu back a century ago, probably came from an American pig farm.

Increasing ecological invasion and imbalance gave us an increasing number of these over the late 20th and 21st centuries. The Reston and Marburg viruses both came from animal testing laboratories in Germany and the United States. There was a hantavirus outbreak in the southwestern United States in the early 1990s – that itself is a similar respiratory pathogen, it derives from rodents. Zika, SARS, MERS, Ebola… All of these modern nightmares are zoonotic pathogens and the increasing frequency with which they make the jump to humans is exactly why such pathogen transmission was high on the government’s risk register – not that it prompted them to prepare or react properly to it.

It also raises the possibility that this coronavirus outbreak is far from the last such pathogen which will trouble us in the coming decades.

Now, that’s one reason why calls to ban the exotic animal trade – calls which I don’t disagree with, by the way – are however not enough. That trade is intertwined with conventional production overproduction, homogenous production and globalised trade. To take one example, one very plausible story for the origins of both HIV one and Ebola [has] to do with increased global fishing in West Africa. [Increased fishing] pushes former fishers into greater reliance on bushmeat, meat harvested from wild animals, thus leaving avenues for animal transmission, very open. Whether that’s in the form of injury or transmission during the butchering of wild animals.

It’s a question of the entire global system of food production, not convenient scapegoats like Chinese markets. When you loop back in to conventional livestock farming, you then confront the issue of mass use of animal antibiotics – contributing in turn to the emergence of resistant superbugs. Slightly different question, but nonetheless an important one.

There are, I think, lots and lots of questions here. We haven’t even touched on climate change… But on top of all of this, climate change is a decent reason for us to significantly reduce our meat-intensive diets. Not least because the land use for the livestock industry is vast – something like 40% of the habitable surface of the earth. We need to look [at] the need to shift current subsidies to meet production. Perhaps beginning to tax the meat industry in a way that incorporates both ecological and public health externalities and effects.

Although I think it’s a reflex on parts of the left to dismiss any argument about how lifestyles need to change because they so often locate problems at the level of the individual consumer rather than the system, it’s very hard to look at the global food system and not conclude that we need to shift away from the very meat-heavy diets still favored in much of the West.

But looking at the pandemic crisis through the lens of food production, and through the food system at the global level, also refocuses our attention; to see other things and grapple with other questions that we might not usually consider.

The sharpest, to me [and to which] I alluded to yesterday, is that the system of global food production is almost entirely mediated through a small clutch of enormously wealthy and enormously powerful agribusiness conglomerates. With a huge number of people working on one side and, of course, everyone who needs to eat – that is everyone – on the other side, that tips us over, in turn, into thinking about capitalism as a global system as well.

That kind of thinking then, in turn, leads us to even more difficult issues.

One is that contemporary capitalism increasingly doesn’t create jobs in the way it’s conventionally believed to, at least not good jobs or things that are recognisable as jobs to those of us who have a conventional model of capitalism from the 20th century. Many millions in the global South [are] only able to find work in the informal or gray sectors, this is particularly true in urban centers. This, in turn, has knock on effects both on health and health care access, as well as their ability to act as the purchasing side of the equation when it comes to food production.

The second is that capitalism drives the vast kind of plantation farming that is certainly partly to blame here; as well as the vast meat production lines – which Mike Davis, I think, in a very catchy phrase called “viral particle accelerators” – [which] really accelerate the rate of spread and mutation of these viruses.

The third, in turn, is that its rapacity also drives climate change, which in turn has huge consequences for animal-born diseases – not just [of] coronaviruses but also includes the reemergence of mosquito-born malaria in Europe. That seems very likely, and it’s in fact underway right now.

But for me, the question always circles back beyond that question of global circuits to food production and farming itself – and it’s a difficult one for the left.

If you look at it long enough, you start to think, “hang on, it’s completely bonkers that we leave strategic questions about how we’ll feed ourselves entirely in the hands of the global market”, but we do.

But what might we do differently? And there tend to be two approaches here.

One, which thinks about the way we might return to a kind of mosaic, small scale, almost peasant-like production. And another one has do with technology and automation.

And here’s a caveat. Despite romantic posturing, agricultural work is hard, skilled, specialised and often frankly very, very unpleasant. I’m reminded of a very famous Stephen Jay Gould line about scientists fascinated by Einstein’s brain, wanting to dissect it and figure out where its genius comes from. Gould was less interested in the weights and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweat shops. You might add to that rice patties or corn fields. Liberating people from the labour of survival, [people] that they may consider the stars, ought to be the premise and precondition of a left-wing politics now and always.

At the same time, there’s an important and welcome shift in the contemporary left considering the question of peasant production; whether, for instance, there might be something quite significant to learn from agricultural traditions of thousands of years – which, for instance, plant particular crops together or in sequence as opposed to the vast homogenous plantations of industrial agriculture. That’s quite apart from the political question of whether mass ownership of land can alter the relationship between industry and the people.

And yet, in any global transition – of the kind necessary not least because of climate change – significant elements of the food system will likely have to remain in place, both in terms of the quantities produced for the global population and the means of distribution. So, we do then come back to questions over technology, automation and mass production – more conventional questions over who owns those means of production and for whom they are deployed.

It should be highlighted that labour-saving, or rather labour-multiplying tehnologies, are what are used very widely in agriculture. Indeed, the global food system depends on them. The trend globally, as for many decades, centuries even, has been towards de-peasantisation. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. Like all uses of technology under capitalism, however, it doesn’t magically eliminate labour just for the social good; it just changes it where it’s profitable, keeping highly exploited labour at where it makes sense profit-wise, often at its most brutal and immiserated form. Technology itself won’t save us here. Only politics can do that.

These questions are important. They’re also important because they highlight difficult questions for a 21st century left: What will food production look like in a post capitalist era? How might we change ownership? How might we deploy technology, not just in the interest of simply serving profit but to feed everyone and to do so without depending on beggering half the world on hyper exploitation or the destruction of nature? Importantly, however nostalgic some are for the 20th century, and the certainties of the 20th century, there are no obvious, iron-clad answers here.

Among the many questions this sudden global shock has surfaced; that it has shaken loose from the realm of the everyday; the kind of questions [regarding] the things we take for granted that we don’t even stare in the face. This question of food supplies seems among the most essential. How might we use the systems and technologies which now exist to actually make the transformations that we need, and to make them justly?

All right. That was a deep dive into just one of the issues of the moment; an important one and perhaps an example of how the current crisis period can lead us to examine those really deep, fundamental, structuring questions that are essential for the left.

Headlines today

Back to the realm of everyday politics here in the UK and across Europe.

Over in Poland, there is controversy over the coming presidential election set to be conducted by postal ballot and conducted almost as if it were a one-party state heavily favouring the incumbent Andrzej Duda. We’ve covered this in some detail a couple of weeks ago on The Burner. Donald Tusk, however, has come out and said he will be refusing to vote and refusing to participate in the elections so shambolic and disfigured is the process. More than 600 judges have written to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is a body which promotes fair elections among other things, saying “we’re concerned by the threat to basic norms such the rule of universal and secret suffrage”. Will international pressure, perhaps from Brussels, have any effect? I’m sceptical.

Here in the UK, access to testing is set to be massively expanded today – it’s actually for those in more vulnerable groups, though were still far off from hitting the hundred thousand tests a day set as a target by Matt Hancock for tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the inquiry into allegations of bullying made against Priti Patel are set to recommend, of course in a staggering and total absence of surprise, that she need not resign so she can continue in her locked groove of perpetual incompetence and casual cruelty. Hoorah.

She does have a finally, having avoided it for some time, come before the Home Affairs Committee today – having really avoided that confrontation for really what seems like an age. So, expect perhaps some fireworks there.

The UK gets ready to launch its contact tracing app, but it looks like the app will run its data through a centralised NHS server, which of course – rightly, in my view – brings up all those risks around privacy and surveillance that we’ve discussed on The Burner before. Perhaps [it’s] worth noting that this is the approach just recently rejected in Germany. There are of course questions to be asked about state capacity and the dominance of global tech firms in the new German approach as well. More on that later this week.

Prime minister’s question time is later today; Starmer naturally will be at the dispatch box on the Labour side. Will Boris Johnson show up? No one knows yet.

Michael Gove, who really is doing the rounds before the public administration committee later today… Might t. hey try to pin him on preparedness and exercise sickness? They certainly should.

Finally, it emerged last night that GMB general secretary Tim Roache has suddenly quit; with rumors swirling around much of the press around a letter that had been circulated among senior staff, with personal allegations that a group of Labour MPs – no word on who – appeared to be closely involved. One to watch there. Not least [because of] the coming general secretary elections at the GMB and the impact that this will also have on the Labour Party – not least because one of Roache’s close officials, Lisa Johnson, had been tipped as a candidate for Labour Party general secretary – should Starmer ease out Jennie Formby, as seems very likely. So let’s keep an eye on that and see how that develops.

But that’s it for this morning. As ever, please do get in touch on [email protected].

Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, and really, really don’t be a prick.

That’s it. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and we’ll see you tomorrow.

À bientôt.


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