Socialism and charity: ending food poverty

Submitted by martin on 3 November, 2020 - 2:03 Author: Rose Jones
food bank

In response to the Conservative Government voting down a Labour Party motion to extend free school meal provision during school holidays, swathes of cafes, pubs, and restaurants across the country have stepped up to the plate, as it were, pledging to provide free meals to anyone who needs them.

This has prompted an outpouring of congratulatory sentiment from across the social spectrum, with individuals, celebrities, and politicians from Nigel Farage to Sadiq Khan welcoming their generosity. Marcus Rashford, footballer and campaigner against child hunger, has been compiling a list of them all on his Twitter feed, each one shared tens of thousands of times – an indicator, perhaps, of a movement of kindness traversing the nation.

Who can fail to be touched by that? The offering of a neighbourly helping hand in such grim times; so many people coming together to do something good.

But is it good? In the most obvious basic sense, of course it is. It is good that children won’t go hungry and are able to have one of their most basic needs met. It is good that families who are in that situation know that their community wants to care for them. It is good that people have a very humanistic impulse to want to help those less fortunate, and to share. It is good to see people taking matters into their own hands and making a gesture which can only be read as a statement of opposition and defiance to the Government.

It is not good, however, to normalise philanthropy. It is not good to contribute to a narrative which accepts it is ok for - or indeed, congratulates - businesses stepping in when a government has failed to ensure its citizens’ fundamental human needs are met. It is not good, or rather, not good enough, to simply mitigate the effects of injustice and inequality rather than challenge them.

It is not good to uphold and perpetuate the Tories’ logic that the free market - or in this case, the benevolent whim of private individuals - will provide when the state is absent. It is not good to expect families to have to walk into a café, swallow their pride, and quietly ask to be excused from paying for a sandwich. Many business owners have qualified their offer with "no questions asked", or "just send us a private message", but this does not alter the dynamics involved nor stop the interaction from being deferential and dehumanising.

As Bob Brecher, socialist and Professor of Moral Philosophy has argued, to have to rely on charity for one’s basic needs "puts one in a position of dependency on the benevolence of others. And that at once reflects and creates a situation of radical inequality but it is precisely that inequality which is the root cause of the problem" [1].

That there is a radical level of inequality is not in doubt: in England alone, 1.3 million children claim free school meals, which is 15% of state-educated pupils [2]. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s main food bank provider, gave food parcels to nearly 700,000 people last year, and in areas where Universal Credit has been introduced, food bank usage has increased by 52% [3]. One in four low-income households already do not eat regularly or healthily because of a lack of money [4]. And these statistics predate the Coronavirus pandemic. While more households are forced into poverty as a result of the shedding of nearly a quarter of a million jobs in the UK since the start of lockdown [5], a report by Swiss bank UBS found that in the same period billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter [6]. This situation is grotesque.

The money to be able to afford the free school meal extension is there: as an investigation by Faisal Islam, Economics Editor at the BBC, concluded this week: "no, we aren’t really running out of cash… it is difficult to argue that "no money" is the constraint on extending free school meals…These are political decisions" [7]. They are, and it is imperative that this issue does not become depoliticised.

It is political, for example, to question why Michael Gove spent £15m establishing a fund to support charitable surplus-food redistribution, when the causes of industrial-scale food waste are "excessive production and profit-motivated overstocking" [8]. It is political to question why the CEO of Tesco delivered the keynote speech at the Food Bank Leadership Institute’s annual conference, demonstrating his corporation’s social responsibility by donating his waste products to food banks, yet fails to pay his workers a Living Wage, rendering it necessary for some of them to use those very food banks. As Engels wrote, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, this is:

"As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very lifeblood and then practicing your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!" [9]

This critique of charity as laid out so far - as something problematic, hypocritical, and disempowering - isn’t new. And in the sense of trying to communicate socialist ideas to a wider audience than people who read this paper, it is not particularly helpful either.

Seeing some on the (ultra?) left scorn or criticise those who are trying to stop kids from being hungry or even people who just think it is a nice thing to do, serves only to give the impression of ideological superiority, and simply appears unsympathetic and churlish. There are people in our union branches, in our Constituency Labour Parties, in our communities, and in our workplaces, who are volunteers for charities, for food banks.

So how do we relate to this solidaristic impulse? How do we recognise, and positively advocate for, the qualitative difference between charity and solidarity? And, most importantly, how can we affect the structural change that is needed instead? Hal Draper wrote that "in the long run, a people can be held in subjection most effectively not by brute force but by gutting them of the capacity to fight for themselves" [10]. So how can we engender this capacity?

In 1969 the Black Panthers (BP) declared that "hunger is one of the means of oppression and it must be halted" [11] and established their Free Breakfast for Children drive in cities across the US, where BP community kitchens gave free, healthy breakfasts to tens of thousands of children before school. The meals were made mainly from donations solicited from food and grocery stores, and when shops and businesses would refuse to donate, the BPs would publish the names in their newspaper and call consumer boycotts and demonstrations to force them to change their minds.

Billy Jennings, a former Panther who is now the Party’s archivist, said "that’s what a vanguard party does. We set examples for people to follow" [12]. The clubs were "designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America" [13].

Whilst obviously meeting an immediate need, the clubs were ultimately a tool for political education and mobilisation, which framed hunger as an "issue of power and inequitable resource distribution" rather than something simply unfortunate. The existence of the breakfast clubs normalised the idea of free and socialised provision for a basic necessity, and in 1975 the United States Department of Agriculture permanently authorised the Social Breakfast Program [14].

Whilst this part of BP history has been written about extensively, a less known but related element concerns their joint political work with the United Farm Workers union (UFW), founded in 1962 to organise predominantly Mexican farm workers in California. BP were boycotting Safeway, then the second largest grocery store in the US, for refusing to donate to their breakfast clubs, and became aware that the UFW were also.

The UFW were attempting a recognition campaign with the Giumarra Vineyard Corporation, and in addition to strike action they called for a boycott of the company, which escalated to a boycott of all Californian grapes, and then Safeway as the largest grape buyers. The BP published details of the boycott in their newspaper, as well as pre-printed forms to enable their readership to send donations to the union’s strike funds.

When UFW held pickets at Safeway, local BP chapters across the US would send as many members as the UFW required to bolster numbers, hold the line, and to act as security. They also provided a "motor pool" to drive Safeway customers to other grocery stores that supported their breakfast programs, ensuring the UFW pickets were not crossed. In 1970 the UFW won, and got union contracts with not just Giumarra, but with 27 California grape growers, who had seen what coordinated nationwide action could do to their supply chains.

This mutually supportive relationship between the BP and UFW continued for years, including the UFW rallying their members to support BP candidates and their campaigns when they attempted electoralism [15].

This example illustrates how people can be politicised and mobilised across different - but related - sites of struggle: in the community, in the workplace, and at the ballot box, and can be used to inform our ideas about the activities we are involved in, and whether (or how) this activity frustrates or facilitates political awareness and agency:

An example of a community approach is a mutual aid group in Newcastle, who rather than distributing food packages which contain "the basics", have appropriated phone boxes into "community larders", with posters outside saying to "take what you need, leave what you don’t. Look after each other, solidarity".

As well removing bureaucratic hurdles common to institutionalised means of support, this strategy also promotes universalism (as anyone is welcome to give and take) and thus instantly eliminates any associated stigma of asking for help and removes the power dynamics that charities maintain. Crucially, it also works on the assumption that recipients will be able to (and should have the right to) make decisions for themselves about what they need and want.

On the political terrain (in this sense to mean electoral politics), for those of us (still) in the Labour Party, we need to challenge Labour representatives who are using refrains like "the children of the nurses/carers who are getting us through this pandemic do not deserve to go hungry" and remind them of the principle of universalism. While it can seem prudent to use this emotionally manipulative manoeuvring to attempt to win people over to the argument, all it does is perpetuate the "deserving poor" narrative.

No child should ever go hungry, irrespective of what their parent does or does not do. While the vapid response from Keir Starmer to businesses filling the gap was to praise "the spirit and generosity of the British people that will get us through this crisis [16]", demonstrating the lengths the Labour Party have to go on this issue, the announcement by numerous local authorities that they will be funding the extension from their own decimated resources should be welcomed, and shows the immediate and material difference that having Labour councils can make.

For those Labour councils that have not yet committed to doing this, we need to be immediately raising this at both ward and constituency level. In the longer-term, we need Labour to commit to profound reform and change in areas such as housing, childcare, transport, and welfare, all of which perpetuate both in and out of work poverty, as well as the abolition of all anti-union laws which restrict the ability of working class people to be able to fight for their own demands.

Which takes us to the final terrain – the workplace. The UFW case highlights how food production is an integral site of class struggle, and how workers’ action can affect and disrupt this in a myriad of ways. In contrast to the "end of labour" thesis advocated by proponents such as Guy Standing [17] and Paul Mason [18], in Kim Moody’s book On New Terrain, he cogently explains how the "recomposition" of the working class presents "new" opportunities and sites for political leverage and worker organisation, such as in logistics.

Some examples of this can currently be found in the US, such as The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker organisations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve and sell food, and who organise to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. Originating from a Labor Notes conference, the organisation’s mission statement pledges to organise "locally and collectively to build a system that ensures [food workers] share in the wealth of their labor and have the power to shape their working conditions and their lives. We believe this change is only possible with worker-based organization, worker solidarity, in alliance with a larger food movement grounded in social, racial and environmental justice" [19].

The Warehouse Workers for Justice is a worker centre established to organise the hundreds of thousands of workers in Illinois’ logistics and distribution industry. With the motto "nothing moves without us", they have so far recovered over $2 million in lost wages, and won paid sick leave, safety improvements, and have eliminated "piecework" rates of pay [20].

In Argentina – the world’s second-largest supplier of corn – workers at grain ports went on strike in May last year, demanding pay increases to match inflation which was between 25 – 30%, impacting global prices. Their strike also had the political demand that the government call a "food emergency" in recognition of how the deal they had struck with the IMF and the resulting austerity measures were impoverishing people. On their strike days they would distribute food at marches and on their pickets to highlight the increasing hunger levels in their communities.

It can appear a tenuous link from schoolchildren in Bolton to dock workers in Buenos Aires, but these issues, and the solutions to them, are interrelated. As Paul Vallely writes in his book Philanthropy: from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, there is "no greater mistake…than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice". Charity facilitates "the distribution rather than the redistribution of wealth", whereas collective action and solidarity conducted by working-class people at the point of production is the most effective way to begin that project.

As labour movement activists, socialists and revolutionaries, we should not sneer at or chastise people for kind and well-intentioned actions which may seem counterproductive to that aim, but instead consider how we can best foster and direct these feelings of compassion, cooperation, and tentative participatory democracy into part of the broader transformative work of building a world where no one ever goes hungry.


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  15. 15 - - See also: Lauren Araiza’s brilliant book To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers
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