Only Intellectuals Love Poverty

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I’ve been having a fine exchange with Eric Holt-Gimenez at Food First about Slow Food. Slow Food is an idea about which I’m a little ambivalent. It was founded on some fairly important political principles, particularly around the politics of taste. Slow Food’s founding question: ‘why can’t the masses have pleasure when they eat, why is it only the rich who can afford to eat well’?

The response was to observe that workers need two things to bring this kind of pleasure within reach – time and money. So they organised, working with unions to increase agricultural labourers’ wages, and fighting for a two-hour lunch break in which to enjoy food.

Now, as Eric notes, Slow Food has increasingly become a circle jerk of olive oil and blue cheese fantasists, moving away quite sharply from its political roots. But in my travels I’ve met many people who still hold those principles dear, and who are organisers in the best sense.

And I think there’s something valuable and vital about the pleasure principle. Emma Goldman has a place on every Berkeley bumper with her line “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to join your revolution”. The idea that there could be profound social change without fun, joy, and sensuousness was as rebarbative to her as it is to me.

One could take the line that this concern is a particularly bourgeois one, and that pleasure won’t put bread in the mouths of the hungry. But remember that the need for both bread and roses was first articulated by women textile workers, not by some bloke with his nose in a glass of Pinot.

This, I think, is the sentiment that I find most valuable in Slow Food, and even though I agree with many of the critiques of Slow Food, ably rehearsed here by Meghan Holmes, I think that activists, particularly middle class ones, rate the need for pleasure rather less than they should. To quote a line reportedly from a Brazilian samba: “Only intellectuals love poverty. Poor people love luxury”.

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