Articles appearing over the past few days in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail have confirmed in the popular press what I’ve suspected for a long time – that today, food is literally being designed to make us addicts. Instilling cravings, motivating us to buy and consume more calories than we need, the food industry profits from our obesity. In fact, eating more than we should is the only thing the manufacturer’s needn’t compete over – increasing the size of our appetites means there is a bigger pie for them to share.
The situation of our food production systems today of course needs to be looked at from many perspectives – how does access to food relate to class oppression, radicalized communities, how does it relate to the welfare and rights of food animals, and of course capitalism. One of those perspectives needs to be the way desires are produced in us, both by public relations and by the engineering of food to maximize its addictive potential, and recognizing that those desires are neither natural nor healthy for us as individuals or as a class or as a society. We can’t take our diets for granted – we don’t choose them as rational free individuals any more than we believe that rational agency theory is an adequate account of human behaviour. And while we shouldn’t blame the victims, we should blame the aggressors -including big agriculture and meat production, the snack food industry, and fast-food. These industries have colonized our minds and our stomachs, have made us slaves to cravings, and have normalized a meat-heavy diet that would have been impossible for anyone but the ultra rich before 20th century technological improvements in agricultural and food animal production.
From a leftist, social-justice or Marxist perspective, this way of speaking can raise concerns. In the past when I’ve raised the issue of the production of desire for foods by manufacturer’s, I’ve been called classist – people have argued that I’m “blaming workers” by criticizing their diets. I don’t mean to blame anyone for their actions, however, insofar as those actions are merely the normal result of capitalist desire production. Rather, I want to assert the possibility of rejecting regimes of desire production, specifically the one functioning in the food system, and I believe this rejection is a step towards freedom. And even if it is not expressly revolutionary, resisting the ability of corporations to engineer our diets is a form of anti-capitalist struggle insofar as one is trying to undermine the capacity of food industry businesses to extract a profit off the backs of the workers in a way that extracts extra money from that class and harms the bodies of the people in that class.
The big question – how to respond to the current situation? First, as many cultural critics have already asserted, we should view major corporations and their brands not as the friendly giants they present to be, but as mindless violent aggressors, that get inside our mind and make us believe we need things which trap us with debt and harm our bodies. But we absolutely can’t do it in an individual way; we need to recognize that the way businesses driven by the capitalist need for constant expansion is by individuating us – making us believe that we are making all our own decisions, when in fact they profit insofar as we fall into group-think. They tell us we are smart consumers, but if we were smart consumers on average then we would buy things not on desire and feeling (how they always present things), but on the basis of rational argument. And rational argument has been mostly absent from advertising since the 1950s (look at a 1920’s newspaper for a refreshingly different take on what advertising can look like). In other words, we need to recognize that we have a big enemy, a smart enemy.
Maybe this is a problem that we can’t finesse our way out of – can we really just become “smart consumers”? Can we take all the knowledge we have of how evil the food industry is, and continue to eat its wares, in a more self-conscious and aware manner? Or, might a more drastic solution be in order, a principled opposition to the avoidable levels of the food industry.
Might it be possible to combine a principled opposition to some elements of the food industry, with a version of what Zizek calls the “second paragraph of Buddhism”, i.e. the short adjunct to western capitalist versions of Buddhism which advise that by giving up our earthly desires and attachments, we will actually become much more successful in the world of business and achievement. The reason why I suggest a potential synchronicity, at least on an individual level, with capitalism is that the concrete universal proceeds through our society mostly as “fads” – and if a revolutionary new way of engaging with food is to be anything more than on the fringes, then it must reckon with becoming a “fad” sooner or later.
Such a principled opposition would need to be free of irrational extremism, meaning opposition to conventional society can not be its principle – else it stands no chance of ever becoming mainstream. And it can’t be connected only to the production of food, because this is not an immediate experience, and makes participation impossible for those who don’t have access to a CSA or organic vegetables, etc…
The principle I’m going to suggest is simple: Food is a drug. Food is an addictive, addictive drug. And the sooner we start treating it this way, the better. We use food to regulate our emotions, the same way an alcoholic uses booze, or, well you can fill out the rest. Now, drugs aren’t bad – drugs are normal in basically every society ever. But also every society ever has certain norms and taboos around drugs, because they recognize that unrestrained drug use can facilitate some pretty out of whack lives. Drugs are dangerous because you can start to use them to deal with problems in your life, rather than dealing with the problems themselves.
What is a drug? A drug is simply something that alters your mental state. There are plenty of ways to alter your mental state through activity – you could go running, or jumping, or travelling, or read a new book, or watch a film. Or, you could get drunk or take drugs. All of those things will alter your mental state, change your emotions. But drugs are the easiest, because they don’t require you to do anything – you are radically passive in your own transformation. This is as true for red wine as it is for mushrooms as it is for pasta.
Now that we’ve accepted that food is a drug, we can add the adjunct: every food is permitted, except ignorance. Also, I think, the regular kind of drugs are permitted. But in all cases, it’s generally best to take drugs, if you are going to take them, in order to have other transformative experiences that you wouldn’t easily have without the change in your mental state. That’s why we go out when we drink, and we think it’s problematic when people drink a lone by themselves. Eating, and for example Feasting, is the same – feasting is using a large amount of food (and other drugs) to create a jovial atmosphere of celebration. And at the feast, which could also be a festival, you may go through all manner of transformative experiences, becoming a wiser and more interesting person.
As for veganism, would you smoke marijuana if it was made from sentient mammals? I wouldn’t. If you wouldn’t then you shouldn’t be eating sentient mammals. If you would, well, you probably won’t listen to my appeal and this isn’t the place for it. But I hope your pot made from animals gives you a headache.
The beauty of this principle is it reveals the truth of “it matters what you eat” and “it doesn’t matter what you eat”. Because, in a sense it’s true that it doesn’t matter where you get your calories – if you eat less calories in a day than you consume, you are going to lose weight, whether you eat Oreos or Carrots. But are you really going to think that Oreos and carrots are the same drug? No, clearly Oreos have a different effect on our psyche, are more craving-inducing, are more likely to encourage us to over-eat. It also encourages us to think of the mood altering effects of food in relation to the social activities they go along with. Maybe sometimes it’s ok to eat junk food – what new experiences might junk food enable?
Food is a drug. I believe we should legalize all drugs. But take none without thinking of their consequences, and if you recognize you are addicted to one or another drug, consider principles of harm-reduction or reducing your usage, or replacing with a different drug. Oreos are crack. Carrot sticks are melatonin.