Thursday, 23 October 2008

Eating at the Karl Marx Cafe

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.

12 comments:

John Meredith said...

"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. "

But how can you avoid the red tpe if you want to ensure that they are 'participatory'? What will the definition of participatory be, why prefer one definition over another, and how do you make sure that every user has access to the same level of participation? When does 'participation' become 'explotitation' and how can this be prevented? All this will demand a large buraeucratic machine, on top of the buraecracy needed to ensure food supplies, etc.

This discussion puts me in mind of that lovely culinary creation of the Russian revolution: 'fish in its second freshness'. Yum.

JesseB said...

It seems rather obvious, just like in current capitalist states, "participation" is more a matter of customer interaction with management. Not all customers will ever participate and management will always be open to reasonable input. It's not that far of a stretch.

The bureaucracy would be no more than any current restaurant chain. The difference being, with customer interaction, regional and local restaurants might actually end up more diverse than Applebees and the dozens of other cookie-cutter shops.

It seems like you're just shooting the idea down because you don't buy it rather than providing some logical reasoning behind your assuptions.

Cecilieaux said...

I like this practical, brass tacks approach. So often there's talk of the theory of value trifulcated by the velocity of tomatoes. If you're not an economist, you're lost.

This is still complicated. A small town with famrs nearby could reasonably merge food production, delivery and preparation into one system. But how to account for tastes? I really, really hate anything with spices (even pepper) on it. The day it's "Indian Festival" at the co-op restaurant, I'm in trouble.

Then there's the question of places like New York City (similar to your London). Solve that first.

It's still a wonderful exercise and I salute you.

John Meredith said...

"The bureaucracy would be no more than any current restaurant chain."

It would be larger by many magnitudes and would have to serve government policy, making its job infinitely more complex. I am guessing that you have never worked for a large buraecracy. Do you really think the result would be edible food?

Paul said...

Look people don't be so harsh the guy is a well meaning ideologue even if proposals such as this suggestion seem laughably impractical. Besides if you don’t eat in the compulsory state vegan canteen you’ll be deemed a counter-revolutionary and imprisoned! (hint the latter is one way it might partially work)

Phil BC said...

Hey Paul, what part of the word 'optional' don't you understand? Even under the watchful eye of the Stasi, East German workers had the choice to use communal canteens or eat at home.

John, I happen to think that on the whole people are pretty intelligent and more than capable of organising things for themselves without the massive, unaccountable and unnecessarily duplicated bureaucracies of your beloved system.

Anyway, this was a flight of fancy, a look into how a future could look. Not a detailed blue print.

Paul said...

'Anyway, this was a flight of fancy, a look into how a future could look.' Indeed it was Phil all the best. My comment was of course jocular. I can't help but poke fun at neo-Marxist plans like this however as like Marxism itself they will never work. Indeed all Socialist governments are to a large extent authoritarian or at least have an overwhelming amount of state control. I know you are a democrat it just puzzles me as to why you yearn for a system that has never worked and in many of its manifestations killed millions. Still all the best and if you helped plan and implement the KPA's recent redevelopment then you do indeed have some bright ideas.

John Meredith said...

"John, I happen to think that on the whole people are pretty intelligent and more than capable of organising things for themselves without the massive, unaccountable and unnecessarily duplicated bureaucracies of your beloved system."

I agree with you, but that is what we have now, a market system. If we want a socialised system, they will be prevented from organising for themselves and will have to organise according to government policy. How can this be achieved without a large bureacracy?

Actually, I have some experience of the sort of thing you are recomendingg having visited Cuba some years ago. The best way to get a decent meal there was to visit one of the illegal restauarnt cafes that were run illicitly out of peoples' appartments. Black markets such as these are the inevitable result of socialising food.

stanleymilgram said...

Prole.info made an attractive comic book critique of the whole restaurant industry, Abolish Restaurants. I'm not sure how much of it I agree with, but you might want to take a look.

For myself, I can't imagine communal eating that doesn't involve the customers mucking in with (at least some of) the work.

http://www.prole.info/

Duncan Money said...

it just puzzles me as to why you yearn for a system that has never worked and in many of its manifestations killed millions.

Maybe because this isn't what Phil sees or defines socialism as?

You can of course argue, wrongly in my opinion, that this is the only kind of socialism possible but that doesn't mean that it is the sort of system socialists want to establish.

Paul said...

'it just puzzles me as to why you yearn for a system that has never worked and in many of its manifestations killed millions.'

Well in fact Phil has repeatedly called himself a Marxist on this blog that is a fact. It is also a fact that Marxism has never at any time actually worked. Other examples of Marxists include Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Honicker etc etc. That is why I said what I said. Phil is welcome to change that if he likes but he clearly identifies himself as one here:

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2008/09/day-in-life.html

Now how many democratic Marxist regimes have there been again? Doubtless our friend Phil will try and tell us he is a democratic socialist, but the track record on Marxist governments speaks for itself. Indeed even 'socialist' regimes tend to have been very authoritarian. Phil will just try and put a pretty face on a system that failed utterly and killed millions I'm afraid.

JesseB said...

John, your guess would be wrong. I currently work in IT for a hospital network. There are few businesses in the world with more beaurocratic BS than healthcare. I also worked in the restaurant industry for almost 10 years. Basically, your assumptions are again based on complete fabrication of evidence only driven by something you don't really understand.

The concept of community-run restaurants is nothing new. The modernization of society, however, has eliminated the bond between the customers and the retailers. So in fact, our current system of almost robotic food service has become nothing more than a menu of which standardized cheeseburger you want. Lets face it, when you can get the exact same meal from a thousand restaurants nationwide, there's already some serious beaurocracy at work.

I personally think the suggestion of the article is far more community aware but not overly practical in modernized (ie fast-food) society. The concluding point which most of the commentators seem to have missed is - it's not manditory nor is standardized. He's not suggesting that every restaurant should be outlawed and turn over their grills to the government. These are just another piece of the puzzle.