One of the first consolidated revolutionary gains was the idea of a just price for food. Direct action in the French Revolution (1789-99) enforced a consensed “maximum” for staple foods and punished speculators in foodstuffs. For nearly two centuries the French state set prices for bread, coffee and sugar. Now we treat the market as a force of nature, immune to all sense of fairness. Wholesale commodity food prices are rising rapidly, exacerbated by the climate-change generated drought across the U. S. Why should the very people that refused to mitigate the warming effects of climate change be able to profit from its effects? Time to remember the maximum.
There’s plenty of nervous discussion in the media about food prices. Somehow they seem unaware that the prices those of us who actually shop for food are asked to pay have been rising for some time. There are concerns that cereal price rises similar to those that fuelled the Arab Spring might revive dissent. Today, soy prices hit an all-time high, while corn was 1% off a record. All of this is unfortunately great news for people who trade in commodity futures, like our old friends at Goldman Sachs.
So far 2012 has been the warmest six months on record and crops are withering. There’s a certain irony here. Fertilizer plus GMO Round Up resistant corn adds up to an almost automatic corn crop. Once planted corn requires only forty days of attention before harvest, allowing farm labor to have decreased to only 2% of the total. The one thing you need is rain. But all that fossil-fuel generated fertilizer has been one component in creating the climate change temperature rise that has been accurately predicted.
Seventy percent of the Midwest “corn belt” is in an official drought, the worse conditions for half a century. Result:
Grain prices pushed to record highs on Thursday as scattered rains in Midwest did little to douse fears that the worst drought in half a century will end soon
While you may never eat corn, it’s in just about everything, as Michael Pollan has shown. In order to appease voters in the wretched Iowa caucuses, ethanol is in almost all gasoline now, although there is no net carbon emission benefit. Corn is fed to cattle in feed-lots, although they are not evolved to digest it properly. On average there are ten pounds of grain used for every pound of beef, while ten calories of fossil fuel are used to make one calorie of meat.
The price rises that are now being passed on to us were, then, in the broad sense entirely foreseeable and foreseen. It was the corporate-funded climate “skeptics” that insisted this would never happen. So why should we and, more particularly, the global subalterns who are most vulnerable to food price rises have to subsidize their political action?
When sugar and coffee prices rose in Paris following the revolution in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), even government officials found it “sophism” that “the consumer’s fancy” should determine prices. So the supposed “law” of supply and demand is nothing more than a means of policing dissent. In 1793, the French popular forces were having none of it, and set their own prices. A police report of the time described what happened:
There was a woman of fairly good appearance, about five feet, one inch tall, thirty years old, with blonde hair, white skin and slightly red eyes. . . . This woman did everything in her power to add to the sedition. She had gone on the inspection [of the warehouse]. And once they returned, it was she who set the price for soap at twelve sous per pound and for sugar at eighteen.
What this woman had done was cut the price of sugar from 60 sous (one-twentieth of a pound) to 18, lower than the pre-speculation price of 25. I’ve written here on a number of occasions about land-sharing among the freed (formerly enslaved). Egalitarian price control was the metropolitan equivalent. It was revolutionary direct action to make the food market benefit the people rather than speculators.
Following such direct actions, the Convention (as the French National Assembly was then known) legislated maximum prices on the following essentials:
fresh meat, salt meat and bacon, butter, sweet oil, cattle, salt fish, wine, brandy, vinegar, cider, beer, firewood, charcoal, coal, candles, lamp oil, salt, soda, sugar, honey, white paper, hides, iron, cast iron, lead, steel, copper, hemp, linens, woolens, stuffs, canvases, the raw materials which are used for fabrics, wooden shoes, shoes, turnips and rape, soap, potash, and tobacco.
That list gives you a sense of the life-world of an eighteenth-century French sans-culotte, the street radicals who had created the maximums. Soon afterwards, they abolished slavery. It was Carlyle’s “hero” Napoleon who re-introduced it.
Now that we have seen that the so-called free market has been comprehensively fixed with regard to interest rates and other supposedly naturally occurring phenomena, there should be renewed calls for price maximums, and an end to speculation in food prices. It’s happened before in the U. S. Voltairine de Cleyre described how in 1912
many persons will recall the action of the housewives of New York who boycotted the butchers, and lowered the price of meat; at the present moment a butter boycott seems looming up, as a direct reply to the price-makers for butter.
In the struggle to recognize the United Farm Workers:
According to polls, about 12 percent of US adults avoided table grapes in the late 1960s, and grower prices for table grapes fell.
Anti-apartheid boycotts were also a part of the successful long-term strategy against the racist regime. There’s history here.