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Dignity Over Austerity in Puerto Rico’s Food Sovereignty Movement by Salena Fay Tramel

As the Puerto Rican food movement looks into the future, Comedores Sociales has a slogan that says it all: ‘We don’t eat austerity; we cook dignity.’ This organization in Puerto Rico that runs community kitchens is an overtly political group that directly connects hunger and poverty to the island’s capitalist and colonial system, rebelling through alternative food provision mechanisms. Such communal initiatives have shown their importance in a time of rising precarity driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and its links to the global capitalist system, writes Salena Fay Tramel.


A few weeks ago, Grassroots International got word that a leading Puerto Rican food sovereignty activist was arrested while demonstrating against uneven political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a fierce defender of social justice, Giovanni Roberto’s recent activities have included organizing food deliveries to people in lockdown, as well as island-wide ‘caravan for life’. Thankfully, he was released after a short time; however, the crackdown on social justice movements in Puerto Rico remains a cause for alarm.

Giovanni works with Comedores Sociales (community kitchens), a Grassroots International partner in the organization’s new Puerto Rico program. Comedores Sociales is an overtly political group that directly connects hunger and poverty on the Caribbean island to the capitalist and colonial system. In fact, Puerto Rico may be the oldest colony in the world; first, the island was wrested from the hands of the Indigenous Taíno peoples by Christopher Columbus and his marauding crew, and it was then acquired by the U.S. as booty after the Spanish-American war.

Today, the island remains an unincorporated territorial possession of the U.S. This means that while Puerto Ricans pay taxes and are encouraged to serve the interests of the ‘mainland’, for example as members of its armed forces, they are not entitled to congressional representation, nor are they able to vote in presidential elections.

Giovanni and his comrades at Comedores Sociales are well aware that it is food that is often weaponized by the powerful to ensure that subaltern classes remain subordinate. Puerto Rico imports some 85% of its food from the U.S., mostly through the hundred-year-old Jones Act, which stipulates that all goods entering the island must do so on ships that are built in the U.S. and owned and operated by Americans.

Cutting Puerto Rico off from its Caribbean neighbors not only forces its citizens to pay exorbitant prices for basic goods, but also causes food shortages when disasters like hurricanes strike, as they do more frequently in the contemporary era of climate chaos. When the eye of Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico as part of its deadly march up the Antilles in 2017, the food disparities that followed unfolded along the existing lines of race, class, and gender and fed on U.S.-imposed dependence.

However, food sovereignty activists on the island are quick to point out that if Puerto Rico once grew most of its own food—not to mention the food that was extracted to satiate its colonizers, coffee for Spain and sugarcane for the U.S.—it can do it again.

Across the island, the food movement insists on meeting people where they are at. ‘Organization has to be based on people’s needs, not just an ideology,’ said Giovanni. He explained that movements have to ask themselves critical questions: ‘What could we do to fortify social change projects? How do we do it in a way that does not depend on anyone else: not on the state, not on the Federales (U.S. government), not on the foundations?’

Comedores Sociales hinges its work on the consumer side of food politics, such as through its delivery of food aid during the coronavirus lockdown. In times of free movement, the group operates Cocina Rebelde (rebel kitchen), a beautiful community space where people can access food for a fair price. The resources obtained through Cocina Rebelde, a solidarity economy project, help to sustain the Comedores Sociales permanently, as well as provide salaries. These projects intentionally involve young people, particularly by linking them to their island’s rich heritage of jíbaras and jíbaros (peasant farmers). Understanding these intersections between production and consumption is a way out of the impasse.

In addition to a rootedness in place and territory in Puerto Rico, the food movement is also branching out abroad with allies in the broader social justice space. For instance, activists from Comedores Sociales, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (the feminist collective under construction), and La Jornada se Acabaron las Promesas (the day the promises are over) have travelled to Brazil to participate in the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement, MST) radical peasant organizing school.

There is still much to do, especially at a time in which almost everyone is worried about the impending economic fallout of an uncertain political moment. But as the Puerto Rican food movement looks into the future, Comedores Sociales has a slogan that says it all: ‘We don’t eat austerity; we cook dignity.’


This article was first published on Grassroots International. The title image shows Giovanni Roberto from Comedores Sociales Cocina Rebelde during a Grassroots International solidarity delegation to Puerto Rico in 2019. Photo Credit: Brooke Anderson, Movement Generation.


Salena TramelAbout the author:

Salena Fay Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.

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Insiders, outsiders, and the rise of populism in gated communities by Cathy Wilcock

Hillary Clinton recently claimed that to halt the spread of populism, Europe needs to get a handle on immigration and to stop migrants from crossing borders into Europe. But anti-immigration ‘solutions’ including the building of physical or symbolic walls will only contribute to the rise in populism, Cathy Wilcock argues.


Hillary Clinton ran for the US presidency against a man arguing that building a wall was the solution to so-called ‘migration problems’ in the USA. Having no clear alternative vision of her own, she lost ground even among voters with migration backgrounds. Strange, then, that her recent interjection into European politics is to recommend wall building over here.

Wall building – whether physical or symbolic – is not only a misapplied remedy to a misidentified problem, but it can exacerbate the very problems it claims to eliminate. Drawing on what we know of gated communities, it is clear that building walls around Europe will only add to its troubles. And it is worth pointing out that there are already walls being built within Europe – see for example the Hungarian wall at the border with Serbia and Romania.

Clinton has argued that in order to stem the spread of populism, Europe needs to get a handle on immigration and stop migrants from crossing borders into Europe. She links a rise in right-wing populism to fears around immigration and proposes drastically curbing immigration in order to assuage those fears and the appetite for populism that emerges from them.

I agree with her on only one point: that right-wing populism is dangerous for Europe and that fear around immigration is linked to its rise. The rest is woefully misguided. Her anti-immigration solution will only contribute to the rise in populism; the very thing she wants to eliminate.

FALSE FEARS OF IMMIGRATION

Her first mistake is to conflate the problem of fear of immigration with immigration itself. In doing so, she has misdiagnosed the disease and prescribed the wrong medicine. Fear of immigration manifests as ideas that migrants will erase economic, social, and cultural capital for native Europeans. However, by any objective standards, migration does not precipitate the erosion of any of these things.

Declining job opportunities and welfare budgets have not been caused by increased immigration, but by policies of austerity and poor economic redistribution. Despite incendiary tabloid headlines, migrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than natives. The influx of migrant cultures does not erase native cultures, but rather hybridises with them to produce new cultural forms. In any case, there is no such thing as a pure native culture which pre-exists influences of immigrants. Fear of immigration is therefore a false fear – a phobia – much like my own tendency to scream at spiders. And these are ideas caused by right-wing populism, rather than the other way around.

GATED COMMUNITIES: A RESPONSE TO THREATS

We know from research on gated communities that building walls in order to protect communities from either real or imagined threats has deleterious social effects both inside and outside the walls. Importantly for our parallel with a walled Europe, gated communities create a form of citizenship which is founded in an imagined fear of the excluded other. Building physical or symbolic walls through curbing immigration in order to address the European phobia of immigration could actually make fears of immigrants worse and, in doing so, fuel the fire of right-wing populism.

Gated communities exist all over the world, but especially in urban contexts of high inequality where a rich minority wants to protect itself from threats associated with the poor majority. Usually it is the threat of crime that incentivises gating, but it can also derive from the need to preserve a particular lifestyle or culture. They are known as the enclaves of the rich or the ghettos of the affluent and, in most cases, there is also a racial dimension to who lives inside and outside the gates.

Much like the kind of Europe Clinton has recommended, gated communities offer their residents an opportunity to eliminate unwanted encounters with ‘others’: whether they are criminals, those of a lower socio-economic class, or those with different lifestyles. Life inside the gates promises protection from a litany of social ills which – while being structural in nature – are embodied in the excluded.

ARE GATED COMMUNITIES SUCCESSFUL?

After decades of research, gated communities have been found to contribute to social degradation both inside and outside the gates. Outside of gated communities, social fragmentation proliferates and this is not even offset by increased social cohesion inside the gates. Neighbourhood disputes are just as likely inside gated communities as they are outside. In fact, within gated communities, residents often report feeling controlled by the expectations that they will adhere to a particular ‘inside’ culture and are made to feel like they don’t belong if they don’t fit in with it. Imagine what it would be like if Europe became gated; people with ethic minority backgrounds could end up being viewed as the outsiders who sneaked in before the gates closed.

Particularly important for our parallels with Europe, constructions of gated communities have not conclusively resulted in either a reduction in real crime rates, or even a reduction in the fear of crime. Some studies even report increases in crime rates and increases in anxiety among residents. Ultimately, gated communities escalate, rather than diminish, fear of the other.

Within gated communities, a form of citizenship emerges which based on spatial exclusivity in which no social contract exists between those inside and those outside the walls – and in which those inside the walls are held to arbitrary and undemocratic cultural standards. They do not produce progressive rights-based political communities but instead generate elite enclaves comparable to medieval city states. You cannot imagine a more fertile ground for the rise of populism.


This article was originally published here.


CW bwAbout the author:

Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration.