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The politics of bread

Ruth Potts and Molly Conisbee guide us through the many struggles organised around bread, arguing that the humble loaf is the foodstuff of revolution

January 2, 2014
9 min read

breadAn Egyptian holds a piece of bread during a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square

Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion a citadel of money and power. Yet here you stand, a giant, starved and fettered . . . You too will have to learn that you have a right to share your neighbours’ bread . . . Well, then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right.’
Emma Goldman, Union Square, New York, 21 August 1893

It is 121 years since the anarchist Peter Kropotkin first published his recipe for revolutionary transformation: La Conquête du Pain (The Conquest of Bread). Spurred by the fall of the Paris Commune, Kropotkin believed fervently that social transformation that dealt in ideals alone was destined to fail. A new society, he stressed, must be built on its ability to provide sustenance for all. More than a century later, bread is still the trigger for, and the stuff of, revolution and revolutionary metaphor.

Delve beneath the crust and the metaphor is rich in meaning. In the fermentation that begins when flour meets water, we find inspiration for the self-organising systems that are the foundation of anarchist thinking. In the bakeries springing up throughout the global north we find a rejection of the impoverishment of industrialised production, and in the process of making we find beauty and meaning too.

We find social injustice in the nutritional apocalypse that has accompanied the rise of ‘cheap’ food over the past 60 or so years. In the global north cheap has meant hollowing out the nutritional value of a range of staple foodstuffs, while in the south structural adjustment programmes and IMF conditions have forced the withdrawal of support that guaranteed basic nutrition for all. This in the name of economic ‘modernisation’.

Taking back the production of our daily bread is not only metaphorically powerful; it is a practical step towards far more wide-reaching change. Bake our own bread – together – and it becomes clear how much more we can do for ourselves.

Bread for all

‘We have the temerity to declare that all have a right to bread, that there is bread enough for all, and that with this watchword of Bread for All the Revolution will triumph.’
Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

Bread’s cost and availability has been a factor in most major revolutions and social upheavals in history

The Conquest of Bread was, in Kropotkin’s words, ‘a study of the needs of humanity and the economic means to satisfy them’. In it, he documented what he considered to be the defects of feudalism and later capitalism as economic systems, with their dependence on the servitude of ‘the masses’ through a deliberate maintenance of scarcity and poverty in order to exert social mechanisms of control. In their place, he proposed systems founded on mutualism and voluntary cooperation, exemplars of which he believed abounded in both the natural world and throughout human history. Bread is used as both a metaphorical and literal driver in a politics of sociability versus exploitation – and it helps to illuminate why Kropotkin’s ideas deserve re-examination today.

Bread represents politics and class like almost no other foodstuff. Its cost and availability has been a factor in most major revolutions and social upheavals in history. It embodies some of the worst aspects of exploitation in the food chain (it is easily adulterated – contemporary industrially produced bread is only the latest example). And the language of bread permeates our political consciousness: dole, daily bread, breadline, bread and circuses. In Egyptian Arabic, the word for bread, aish, means simply ‘life’.

If all history is, at least in part, the history of economic struggle, then this plays out particularly sharply through the history of bread. The type of bread that different classes were able to eat (dark rye/black breads for the poor, wheaten and white loaves for the wealthy) has at times been legally defined. The price and style of bread has become symptomatic of shifting class relations and the recent revival of interest in artisan production is the latest iteration of this – the irony being that the rougher, rye and dark breads are fashionable again among wealthier consumers while white, processed bread denotes the less well-off. This is best encapsulated perhaps by the famous misquote attributed to Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution: ‘Let them eat cake.’

In late 18th-century England, a series of disastrous harvests resulted in dramatic food riots – not, as the historian E P Thompson points out, triggered just by the scarcity of bread but by a convergence of recession, the high point of enclosure, fears of foreign invasion and the state of anti-Jacobin panic. Just as it is today, bread was a central metaphor for wider political fears and grievances.

As the first country to industrialise, Britain was also the first to pioneer convenience food and mass production: canning, processing and intensive farming. Other countries, notably the US, quickly followed. Not long after The Conquest of Bread was first published in English, Otto Frederick Rohwedder launched the first bread-slicing machine (after a prototype was destroyed by fire in 1912, a fully working model cut its first slice in Missouri in 1928).

A major driver of the impoverishment of our daily loaf was the introduction in 1961 of the Chorleywood process: using energy-intensive mechanical working of dough and chemical additives to dramatically reduce fermentation times. In a world obsessed with saving time, rather than the value of time, it made sense to shorten the process irrespective of the deleterious result on the end product. The concurrent search for high-yielding wheat varieties led to an enormous reduction in the range of wheat types grown, and according to the campaigning baker, Andrew Whitley, a 40 per cent reduction in wheat’s nutritional value.

This matters because although a plethora of alternatives are being cultivated on the margins, the vast majority of the wheat we consume is still industrially produced. Food prices have risen considerably in recent years, due to a combination of poor harvests (related to more extreme weather conditions), political control, the use of grain as animal feed, the vast expansion of bio-fuels displacing crops grown to feed people and the emergence of speculation on food as a commodity.

Between January 2005 and June 2008, the rise in prices of foods such as maize, wheat and rice meant an average rise in food prices of 83 per cent worldwide. Food riots spread across the globe in 2007–2010 and were one of the major drivers behind the Arab Spring. According to Jane Harrigan of SOAS, ‘The food price spike was the final nail in the coffin for regimes that were failing to deliver on their side of the social contract.’

The rallying cry of the 2011 Egyptian revolution was ‘Bread, freedom and social justice’. More recently, graffiti near Tahrir Square declared: ‘We don’t need fuckin’ beard, we need bread.’ As in Kropotkin’s time, the revolution is measured not only in its ideals, but its ability to provide for all. When ‘Blockupy’ shut down the European Central Bank in Frankfurt in May 2013 for its role in the austerity politics that have resulted in unnecessary suffering for millions of ordinary people, a banner read: ‘It’s not about a bigger slice of the cake, we want the whole bakery!’

Getting bread ‘right’ means addressing everything from access to land, food production systems, methods (and therefore relationships) of production, national diets (and their increasing impacts on health outcomes, particularly for those on the lowest incomes) and the way we spend our time. This is why using our loaves matters so much.

Taking over the bakery

‘I’m going to make you bread like you’ve never seen before, and in this bread there will be love and friendship.’
Marcel Pagnol

A slow revolution in bread is already fermenting, while the politics of austerity combined with the poor growing conditions of 2013 means that bread will become more political in the near future. 

The question of bread today calls for a fundamental reappraisal of how we live and organise

New experiments emerging on the margins of the current economy could be taken up much more widely. In Yorkshire a bakery that couldn’t access a conventional loan issued ‘bread bonds’, funding its expansion with loans repaid in deliveries of bread. Others, like the US-based Heritage Wheat Conservancy, are resurrecting older varieties of wheat, reviving local production and insulating against increasing variation in climatic conditions. The Decan Development Society, in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, among a wide range of pioneering projects, has established public distribution networks ensuring autonomous control over seeds, revived over 80 land races and established Community Grain Funds to provide for times of hardship. In France, Terre de Liens has raised £25 million since 2006 to take agricultural land out of the speculative economy for rent, in small plots, to organic farmers. 

Artisanal bakeries are springing up across the UK. Many, such as the E5 bakehouse in Hackney, east London, provide bread-making classes for local schoolchildren, while others offer apprenticeships for young people not in education or employment. Opening its newly-painted doors soon, the Leeds Bread Co-operative, the first of a new wave of community supported bakeries, aims to provide affordable loaves at five collection points across the city. Other bakeries simply provide space and resources for local people to bake – in return for a small proportion of each batch sold to fund the project. There is much more that could be done, of course. Guerrilla gardens springing up in towns and cities could plant for bread as well as beauty. Community reclamation orders could be used to create urban wheat fields on vacant plots.

As we struggle to overthrow systems that serve the wants of the few, we should heed Kropotkin’s warning that: ‘They discussed various political questions at great length, but forgot to discuss the question of bread.’ The question of bread today calls for a fundamental reappraisal of how we live and organise. Do this, and we might yet bring the co-operative society Kropotkin envisaged more widely into being. More than that: by baking and sharing bread we take back our time, the means of production and ferment the potential for lasting transformation.

Ruth Potts and Molly Conisbee are co-founders of Bread, Print & Roses

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