Food on a Crowded Island: Confronting the hidden abode

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Cultivate member and erstwhile West Oxford resident Joel Lazarus (Editor’s note: also a political scientist!) is away on a year-long sojourn in Singapore with his family. So much is he missing the VegVan that he’s decided to stay in touch in blog format. This is the third in his series in which he tucks into the social and environmental dimensions of how this small, crowded island feeds itself.

marx‘Let us, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere [of the marketplace], where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here, we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.’

This famous passage is taken from Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume One. As a political economist, one of Marx’s truly revolutionary moves was to do precisely this: to go beyond the superficial contractual equality of liberal legalism deep into the ‘hidden abode’ of the factory in order to ‘lay bare’ the violence and suffering that workers at that time endured (and continue to endure today). In later years, feminists would open our eyes to the hidden abode of the household. More recently, ecologists have alerted us to the violence wreaked upon animals and the Earth itself in the process of ever-increasing commodity production…

…’Hang on a minute there, Joel!‘, I hear you cry, ‘That’s all a bit intense! I thought this was supposed to be about food in Singapore!’ A pretty heavy opener for a blogpost, I grant you. But, recent developments have brought home to me just how resonant this passage continues to be. Allow me to explain…

I began this blog back in February by inviting you to join me on a journey to learn more about how this prosperous little city-state island feeds itself. We started off gently enough by touring local food outlets, and I also shared photos of the tropical fruit and veg I brought home from my local ‘wet market’. Yet, the goal was always to try to go deeper, to go beyond the ‘noisy’ marketplace where ‘everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone’. The goal was to try to understand more about an island where only 1% of its territory remains in agricultural use, yet where its supermarkets were brimming with every conceivable global food commodity. Since over 90% of Singapore’s food is imported (and since Cultivate’s travel budget doesn’t stretch that far!), I knew I was going to have to confine myself mainly to internet research. Yet, I also knew that I should also be able to visit some of Singapore’s farms. This excited me, particularly because they are the site of some highly innovative new methods of production. In short, I knew that I had to try to enter the ‘hidden abode of production’ and that, as Marx’s sign on the threshold suggests, the welcome might not be too warm or open.

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This month, I decided to begin my investigation by trying to arrange a visit to Singapore’s only dairy farm, the ominously named ‘Singapore Dairy Technologies Ltd’. Since all other milks seem to come from abroad, many from Australia, this was the milk that I was buying for my children. A google search proved anything but enlightening. Still, there was a phone number so I rang.

The phone rang many times before transferring to a mobile phone. A man answered. I told him that my children enjoyed his milk and that, as an interested consumer, I was keen to pay a brief visit to his farm. I was told that this wouldn’t be possible because, since the outbreaks of SARS and Avian Flu a few years back, visits to the farm were prohibited by the government. The man quickly cut the call short by telling me to call back when he was in his office. I called back the other side of the weekend. In a friendly manner, I reminded him of my previous call and was just about to continue when he interrupted me: ‘No farm visits! I already told you!’ I replied that I just wanted to come down for half an hour to ask him some general questions about how they keep and milk their cows. He told me that he was far too busy. I asked him how I could keep buying his milk in good faith when I didn’t know anything about how it was produced. He just repeated that I was not able to visit. I told him I wouldn’t buy his milk any more. The conversation ended there.

The exchange had a negative impact on my opinion of Singapore Dairy Technologies. The manager’s hostility toward outside questions and enquiries combined with its modernist name (and Singapore’s paltry amount of pasture land) has led me to conclude that milk is probably produced there by highly industrial methods. Such methods inescapably cause considerable distress, damage, disease, and death to sentient animals. Of course, because its practices are guarded within the hidden abode, I am reduced to what some might call speculation, but what I would call an educated guess.

So, when confronted by the hidden abode what should we do? I won’t here offer a sermon on ethical consumption. It’s important, yet, at the same time, I believe that a focus on consumption can actually serve to reinforce the dominant neo-liberal lie that reduces society to atomised individuals and human relations to the logic and practice of market exchange. My decision not to buy Singapore Dairy Technologies’ milk has not resolved my problem; it has compounded it. The only comparatively ethically/sustainably produced milk I could find here has been flown in from the US and costs $9 (£4.50) a litre! That’s a no go!

I’ve come to the conclusion that you can spend your whole life, tying yourself in knots, working out the pros and cons of buying/avoiding every single item on your shopping list. Ethical consumption is an endless minefield, an infinite dilemma, an almost Sisyphean task. Ethical consumption is a paradox. The time required to grapple with this dilemma, and the unfortunate extra cost of supposedly ethically produced goods, makes it all too often a (pre)occupation for the self-satisfied privileged middle-classes too – the torch-bearers of ‘civilisation’ and ‘reform’ in our bourgeois society. In this way, ethical consumption can even relieve the social pressure for the radical changes we need. You can just buy your fair-trade quinoa and wrap yourself in the warm glow of self-satisfaction of having done your bit. To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try our best to consume ethically. What I’m saying is that our prime concern should be to create a world in which the very concept of ethical consumption is redundant. That’s why I’m really proud to associate myself through this blog with Cultivate.

The hidden abode of production persists. Indeed, while neo-liberal globalisation has helped the noisy marketplace to flourish, it has also helped the other, subterranean elements of the capitalist system to become far more opaque: not just production, but even ownership and location.  We need to follow Marx’s lead. We should recognise this hidden abode and not close our eyes to the painful secrets it conceals. We should definitely work together to open it up to the light of public scrutiny and opprobrium, but ultimately we should work together to democratise all places where land and labour combine to produce the things we need and enjoy. And that, my friends, is this month’s recipe – a recipe for sustainability and happiness!

Well, back to Singapore, and I’ve not given up. I hope next time to get inside the hidden abode and report back on some curious, innovate approaches to growing food for a large population on little land. 

Stay tuned!

Joel