The Time it Takes

Just finished reading Giovanni Arrighi’s two-part essay in last year’s New Left Reviews called “Hegemony Unravelling”. I like Arrighi’s essay, especially at this weirdly insular moment in U.S. history, where an inarticulate fool like Bush makes a speech that focuses SO much attention and discussion among the chattering classes. (I couldn’t even bring myself to join the demo in downtown SF to “drown out” the Bush regime… more cannon fodder duty, no thanks!) Arrighi’s essays argue for a long view of world capitalism, building on the work of David Harvey, Ferdinand Braudel, and his own collaboration with Beverly Silver (I briefly reviewed her important book, Forces of Labor, in Processed World 2.005).

When the ebb and flow of scandal and appointment and war news grips political imagination, it’s terribly difficult to get an overview, to appreciate our moment in history, to think beyond the personal and political dramas that will soon be utterly forgotten as the trivia they are. In “Hegemony Unravelling” it is argued that there have been distinct periods of capitalist development in which specific constellations of government and business institutions “fixed spatially” regimes of profitability. He identifies various periods starting with the city-states of Venice and Genoa and the latter’s relationship with Portugal and Spain, through Amsterdam and the Dutch control of world markets (all of these are transitional city-states depending more on control of instruments of finance than actual territorial domination), and then the British empire’s rise and displacement of the Dutch financiers. In the 20th century, the U.S. ‘wins’ WWI and WWII and finally takes over the central role in managing and designing world accumulation from England, only to founder on its overreach at the current moment. Arrighi is arguing that we are at the terminal point of the U.S. empire, and shows how the period from the signal crisis of U.S. hegemony (the Vietnam war and the ’60s) was overcome by a belle epoque (the 1980s and 1990s ‘prosperity’) similar to ones enjoyed by previous hegemons between their signal crises and terminal crises.

The Neo-conservative attempt to use the military to extend U.S. power and control for another 50 years, destroying in the process the international mechanisms painstakingly created by FDR, Truman and the rest of the U.S. rulers since WWII, is already clearly an abject failure. While they’re bombing the middle east back to premodern conditions, and subverting any popular movements they can (from Haiti and Venezuela to Bolivia, west Africa, etc.), the Chinese are gaining enormous financial leverage over the U.S. government. This doesn’t predict a specific endpoint, or describe how the U.S. hegemony will actually come completely undone, but it underscores the deeper historical processes we’re living through. These processes are far more important historically than the breathless fear and hysteria that accompanies every twist and turn of Washingtonian politics.

And then there is food.

I went to a Slow Food benefit party a week ago with a bunch of close friends, but also had the pleasure of meeting a lot of new people (and even made the acquaintance of a woman who had been deeply involved in the infamous Blue Shield strike of 1980-81). I just received my latest issue of Slow Food in the mail too, which is a really beautiful magazine and well worth the membership just to get that regularly. Each issue has a lot of great writing (and really good editing!) and this one is no exception. This issue is themed “An Agricultural Testament” and excerpts the writing of Sir Albert Howard’s book of the same name (he was an agronomist in India in the mid-20th century who intelligently documented traditional practices and argued against the chemicalization of food production). Piero Bevilacqua has a piece called “Return to the Earth” wherein he remarks how unlikely it was that the Slow Food gathering last year in Turin called “Terra Madre” would have drawn 10,000 small farmers and other food folks from around the world had it been held a decade earlier.

Which is why I’m mentioning this in the context of ‘Hegemony Unravelling’… we, esp. in the U.S., live in an extremely compressed world, a place in which our daily emotional dramas seem so big and long and overwhelming; in which the political slogans and campaigns of the current crop of ruling kleptocrats seem powerful and important but come and go with every passing day; in which our complacent certainty that there will always be water coming out of the faucet and food at the store is going to be in for a serious jolt some time in the not too distant future…

Slow Food is much more than just a foodie movment of rich people who want to eat fancy foods, although it does seem mostly like that in the U.S. It represents a crucial and long-term effort to undo the catastrophe of modern agriculture and replace it with the fascinating combination of old knowledge, heirloom species, traditional practices with modern science and biology, permaculture and biodynamic agriculture. This seasonal and generational shift is not something you can see in the daily news or through an electorally dominated view of political life. Yet it is a deeply radical, deeply practical revolt against one of the pillars of this suicidal life.

Climate change and the ceaseless degradation of arable lands and fresh water supplies are all real challenges that we will be facing for the rest of our lives. And there are no quick fixes. Not for these big issues, or for the equally large dramas that beset us personally in terms of happiness, love, comfort and security.

Things take the time they take. I’m not really very good at that, just like the whole late 20th century U.S. I am a product of rejects history and patience across the board. But we need a shifting scope of attention and a longer view, a comfort with how long it takes, because we cannot will things to happen any faster. That of course does not mean passively waiting for some kind of deus ex machina to come along and put things right. All efforts to better understand our predicament and to share that knowledge publicly are essential contributions to the real history that we’re living.

So breaking bread together, sharing a good meal, and learning more about a new way of relating to production and consumption of food, are as important as anything we can do. Coming on April 9 at CounterPULSE will be our “Slow Food Feast of Fools and Friends”, a benefit for CounterPULSE but sure to be a fascinating and illuminating and wildly entertaining evening with a great meal to boot… hope some of you thousands of readers will plunk down the $35-$75 sliding scale donation and join us! (And that’s the time it takes to slip a self-serving advert into this blog!…)

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