During our branch discussion on 'everything you've wanted to know about socialism but were afraid to ask ...', M asked what we thought eating establishments in a socialist society might look like. She recalled the attempts of the Bolsheviks and latterly the Stalinists at socialising the privatised domestic labour of women, which involved large communal cafeterias (among other things) and enabled women to enter the labour force in large numbers. Would something similar take root in a future socialist society?
On first thoughts, the idea of socialised eating might not be too appealing. But then again many such places already exist and are part of our everyday life, albeit in forms appropriate to the prevailing capitalist relations of production. The workplace canteen/staff room, school dinner halls, fast food joints, coffee shops, greasy spoons, balti houses, pubs, food courts, plush restaurants; all our variations on the theme of communal eating. Therefore the idea is not as alien as immediately posed.
It is likely the democratic expropriation of capital will include large chains of fast food companies, breweries, coffee shops and the like. Their infrastructures can be merged over a period of time to supply the new socialised outlets that spring up in their place, minimising the waste of needless competition and duplicated supply lines. So there is an efficiency argument supporting the case for socialised eating. But also their scale and depth will vary according to the dependency of populations on them. For example, a successful socialist revolution will inherit a globe of vast infrastructural disparities and standards of living. Socialised canteens can help overcome this by providing guaranteed food supplies and stimulating localised agricultural production at the expense of cash crops - never again will the spectre of famine or adulterated food stalk the global south.
And because we're talking democratic socialism here (because there is no other), socialised eating will not be a labyrinth of bureaucracy and red tape. They will be participatory and encourage its patrons to get involved in their functioning. This is not just in terms of working there - they can be envisaged as places where people can learn about food technology and production. Nutritional information would be freely available, and courses could be run on preparation, cooking and safety. The division between patron and staff would erode to such an extent that it would become meaningless. Plus all would be encouraged to take part in decision making so it and its commitment to sustainable food production is constantly improved.
It's also worth noting socialised eating would be an option. No one would be forced to eat there, but chances are it will become the most convenient place to do so. And because of this, food preparation in the home will go from today's necessity to tomorrow's leisure activity. The tie that has helped bind women to the home throughout the existence of class society will unravel. The (negative) proof of the pudding can be seen in East Germany after the collapse of Stalinism, where socialised eating was one of the first things to go. In lieu of anything else many women were forced back into preparing food at home, marking a recrudescence of housewifery - some "progress".
Socialised eating will not be a standardised experience from locale to locale either. Their size, their efficiency, their democratic planning and management will ensure a different experience wherever you go. It will harness our ingenuity into a blooming of a million culinary flowers and completely transform our experience and consumption of food and eating. For the first time in human history, food will be something that can be enjoyed by everyone.