Hungry Capital

political economy

It is often difficult to relate the immediacy of everyday living to news coming from the esoteric virtuality of finance. And yet, finance shapes and affects – mostly for the worse – a great many things that we would not normally expect to bear a connection with it. One of these things is food. Food has increasingly become an input to the financial calculus of trading floors and corporate boardrooms. In Hungry Capital I undertake to tease out these connections, so as to enable the reader to get his/her head round the tangled phenomenon that is the financialisation of food.

About the book

hungry-capital
Hungry Capital: The Financialization of Food (Zero Books, 2013)

Hungry Capital: The Financialisation of Food explores the precarious relationship between finance and the food system, from farm to fork. The goal to provide nutritious, sustainably sourced food is increasingly jeopardised by the attention it has drawn from the “infernal machines” of financial markets and corporate control networks. On the one hand, food has become an input for financial products that attempt to synthesise “virtual” ownership of agricultural commodities, giving rise to unpredictable price dynamics. A consequence of this has been the 2007-08 food price crisis, and the food riots it sparked around the world. On the other hand, the food chain has also become the conquest frontier for corporate control networks. The result has been the opening up of relationships of co-production between man and nature, in favor of a segmentation of the production process into discrete phases (such as the production of seeds, the provision of chemical fertilisers and pesticides or the processing of farm produce), amenable to the extraction of financial returns. The result is a precarious Leviathan that holds together while, at every step, risks to crumble.

From the Introduction

leviathan

The relationship between food and finance can best be introduced through a metaphor, by reference to a picture found on the cover of the original edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. The latter is a depiction of a giant, whose body consists of a mosaic of individual people “stuck” together into the larger structure of Leviathan’s anatomy. In the context of Hobbes’s work, the Leviathan represents the sovereign, whose authority originates from a social contract between individuals, all wishing to escape a state of nature characterized by aggressive competitive relations. In a postmodern world, of course, Hobbes’s retreat into a “state of nature” of relentless competition between individuals, as well as the exclusive endowment of agency upon humans, make his ideas somewhat obsolete to the critical observer. Leaving Hobbes’s ideas aside, however, the same figure of the Leviathan displays features that are strikingly essential for conceptualizing the world of finance, and its relation to the production and consumption of food. First, the mosaic-like nature of the monster stems from its being an entanglement featuring multiple sources of agency. These are caught in a network where they cling to one another by mutually constraining and orienting the range of options available to each. Second, it combines a horizontal, network-like web of actors that somehow “stick” together, with a vertical division between a core (the head) and a periphery (the limbs). The Leviathan of food and finance is therefore a complex creature which displays apparently contradictory features: decentralized agency across a network in combination with core-periphery arrangements that suggest some degree of centralization; a multiplicity of actors alongside the apparent unity of the system. In this respect, the intricacy of the Leviathan metaphor finds its best conceptual counterpart in the idea of Empire. This concept, first introduced by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, has been defined as a network that arranges “the social and the natural world through the assembling of resources, processes, territories, people and images into specific constellations that channel wealth towards the centre.” In this respect, Empire allows to reconcile the insight that the financial pressures confronting the world of food have an impersonal, systemic hold, with their emergence from complex patterns of agency. This is precisely the insight that this book attempts to explore. There is no shortage of accounts of the food economy in contemporary literature that address it as part of the “system” of capitalism. Indeed, these appear to enjoy wide currency, particularly in the political economy of food camp. A central characteristic of such accounts is to posit structural trends to which the food economy is subject. However, there also appears to be an increasing space for theories that posit a kind of mutual causality. Within this stream, the food economy is not just an appendage of the wider capitalist machine, but plays a defining role in shaping the latter. What financial capitalism “is,” in other words, is co-determined by how it is assembled within the modern food economy. In this book, I suggest that it is a combination of these two approaches that allows one to obtain a comprehensive picture of the relationship between food and finance. On the one hand, finance can be characterized as a system, the evolution of which lends itself to be described in the terminology of structural accounts. On the other hand, however, the boundaries of that system are—upon closer inspection—constantly shifting and demarcated by in-between fields featuring multiple forms of agency. And these agencies can be pinpointed as they shuffle into new combinations. To translate this debate with reference to the food-finance relationship, it is possible to pay heed to accounts that evidence that a transition is underway in the modalities of capital accumulation within the food economy. These accounts underscore the independent role of finance in affecting the dynamics of production and consumption, bringing about the “financialization” of the food economy. At the same time, if one attempts to trace this predominance of finance with specific reference to the food system, one is confronted with a multiplicity of possible pathways to be followed. What one finds along these pathways are strings of actors that do much more than simply obey financial imperatives, but are actually engaged in what Bruno Latour calls “world-making.” In the case of food, this worldmaking is most evident in the ways “food” is assembled, disassembled or outright withdrawn. So, for example, the progressive industrialization of production chains makes it so that “food” comes to include things like margarine (though the examples could be many more), which are really the outcome of a process of industrial assembly of “natural” inputs. Or even like Parmalat’s latte fresco blu, where the engineering of a new product is guided by financial imperatives. On the other hand, “food” disappears into a piece of paper or an electronic recording as it is traded as a commodity on financial markets. Such pathways are the subject of exposition in Chapters 4 to 7. These chapters look—in sequence—at the speculation on commodity markets, the “engineering” of food production through the operations of transnational corporations entangled in a web of financial transactions, and the phenomenon of land grabbing. Chapter 6 offers a case study of the coffee value chain, where several of these issues play out simultaneously. These chapters offer an idea of the systemic reach of financial pressures, by situating such pressures inside the diverse entanglement of actors that contribute to shape the world of food. The first two chapters, instead, carry more of a theoretical bent. They present arguments to reconcile the two perspectives mentioned earlier. The first perspective focuses on a structural reading of the financialization of the food economy, in which the relationship between food and finance is posited in terms of core periphery or system-environment dynamics. This is complemented by the second perspective: an object-centered approach focusing on the mediations performed by heterogeneous actors entangled in situated networks. The combination of these two approaches is meant to allow the reader to behold the majestic monstrosity of the relationship between food and finance. As the boundaries of food production come under pressure and are shifted and redrawn to accommodate increasingly complex forms of agency, the self-referentiality of an unstable financial system is projected onto the world of food, while the increased fragility of the food economy feeds in turn the very chaotic features of the financial system. Giving rise to a gigantic Leviathan that holds itself together while, at every step, risks to crumble.

Reviews and Endorsements

Jayati Ghosh, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Luigi Russi takes up an issue that will dominate the lives of people everywhere in the coming years: the adequacy and safety of our food. He brings insights from the worlds of finance, legal sociology and political economy to link processes of global capitalism with the appalling persistence and increase of hunger and malnutrition. A must read.

David Barling, City University London

Russi issues a stark warning, as he identifies how the drive for profits and the deregulation of commodity trading are re-shaping the business strategies of the large corporations who procure, broker and reassemble our food. The result is the acceleration of the ecological crises facing the food supply.

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Wageningen University

This is a thought-provoking book on the food industries and how these are entangled with the world of finance. It is theoretically well grounded, original and rich in empirical detail. It is an important contribution to the international debate on the future of agriculture.

Geoffrey Lawrence, Journal of Peasant Studies

In Hungry Capital, Luigi Russi takes the reader through the highly complex world of finance, explaining, in a relatively uncomplicated manner, how a system that conventionally lent funds as a basis for regulating society’s scarce resources has emerged as a ‘hall of mirrors’ where monies traded have little or no connection with market fundamentals.

Peter Robbins, author of Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster

Luigi Russi has made a significant contribution to the unpicking of the relationship between finance and food by opening up for scrutiny the powerful and uncontrolled forces operating in this obscure and complex trading system, which has only just been recognised as giving rise to a crisis which is as potentially damaging as the failure to maintain control of the world’s banking industry.

Anastasia Nesvetailova, City University London

At a time when finance and food are the epicentre of global crises, Luigi Russi’s study provides a unique insight into the dynamics driving these complex but critical chains of human economic interaction. A must read for anyone analysing complex socio-economic processes and the potential for social progress.

Ole Bjerg, Copenhagen Business School

Hungry Capital provides a timely and novel analysis of the new frontier of financial capitalism.

Podcast

In conversation with Chris McLeod on the subject matter of Hungry Capital. Discussing the impact of financial speculation on vulnerable populations and the definition of fresh milk, among other things.

Info

Length: fifty-two minutes 17 seconds Source: The GoodCast, 2013

Video

A presentation of Hungry Capital, delivered at the International University College of Turin. Introducing food as co-production, and the challenges coming to it from the multiple processes of financialization.

Info

Length: fifty-eight minutes
Source: IUC Turin, 2013