Left Activism Goes Corporate: A Detour Through the Raw Food Underground

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


February 13, 2014

Left Activism Goes Corporate

A Detour Through the Raw Food Underground

One of the most tedious features of the Silicon Valley Hype Machine is its endless repetition of progressive sounding marketing slogans about democracy and freedom, all while promoting a pro-business agenda. But it’s too easy to read this as a sinister corporate ploy to co-opt the language of activists and twisting them to serve a different agenda.

The truth is that activists’ words don’t have to be twisted at all to be used to support free markets and capitalism because although the phenomenon of left-wing rhetoric concealing a right-wing agenda seems to a speciality of tech startups, it’s also a feature of today’s radical activist scene.

Take Sandor Ellix Katz, a radical food activist and prominent speaker who lives off the grid in a rural intentional community in Tennessee. Katz considers is best known as a fermentation revivalist, and has published books teaching readers how to make sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yoghurt, pickles and many other fermented foods at home. With a foreword from foodie thought leader Michael Pollan, Katz’s Art of Fermentation was a New York Times best-seller and received a James Beard Foundation Award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the food world.

But it’s his 2006 book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Food Movements that’s relevant here. If we didn’t get the reference from the title, a brief glance at the back assures the reader of its left wing credentials. On the back cover, there’s a blurb from Howard Zinn and a summary paragraph condemning the distortion of our food system by corporate profits and announcing the purpose of the book to “take on Big Food by profiling grassroots activists who challenge the way we think about food.”

Between the covers, a different picture emerges. In a mode reminiscent of our infamous tech startup founders and their techno-utopian promoters, Katz talks of revolution and social movements that are challenging the dominant industrial food system and building alternatives from the bottom up, and since he’s not building a billion dollar business here, we have no reason to doubt his sincerity. Of this movement and its goals, Katz says

There is no sacrifice required for this agenda because, generally speaking, the food closest at hand is the freshest, most delicious and most nutritious. This revolution will not be genetically engineered, pumped up with hormones, covered in pesticides, individually wrapped or microwaved. This is a revolution of the everyday, and it’s already happening. It’s a practice more of us can build into our mundane daily realities and into a grassroots groundswell. This revolution is wholesome, nurturing and sensual. This revolution rescues traditional foods that are in danger of extinction and revives skills that will enable people to survive the inevitable collapse of the unsustainable, globalized industrial food system.

He considers himself and this movement to be part of a host of left-wing struggles—the anti-GMO movement, organic food, fair trade, anti-fast food activism, anti-globalization protests against the WTO and World Economic Forum, control of indigenous lands, anti-war movement, economic justice and environmentalism—but insists that taking care of yourself and growing and cooking high quality food is a form of activism. The slogan be the change you want to see in the world has convinced Katz that “nothing is more revolutionary than actively seeking to embody and manifest the ideals we hold.”

This slogan is a favorite of lifestyle activists everywhere today because it gives the imprimatur of radicalism to what would otherwise be personal decisions of little to no broader consequence. It allows Katz to claim that making sauerkraut at home doesn’t just allow you to enjoy the health benefits of probiotics, it also contributes to an important emancipatory project. Whether you find this convincing or absurd, the parallels to the thinking of the ideologists of Silicon Valley are clear.

Having established his alignment with the left, Katz makes a crucial move that turns his movement rightwards, towards the anti-government, anti-regulation rhetoric of the libertarian wing of the Republican party. Because food-oriented lifestyle activism is a radical project linked with the anti-globalization movement, it follows that whatever prevents the flourishing of this lifestyle is the enemy. It turns out that the main obstacle to realizing this fresh, delicious, healthy foodie utopia is government bureaucrats and their health, safety and insurance regulations that prevent the free expression of this burgeoning food counterculture.

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved is partly a travelogue. Katz travels around the country interviewing people that he treats as subversives and revolutionaries, but are really small business owners complaining about government regulation. We meet an underground baker who sells bread illicitly in a bread club because he doesn’t want the hassle of building a certified kitchen required by health and safety regulations. Katz remarks “Eating well has become an act of civil disobedience. The bread club is political resistance.”

Traveling to Tennessee with Katz, we run into Jeff Poppen, an organic farmer who follows the agricultural philosophy of Rudolph Steiner and uses methods like “using homeopathic compost and harmonizing with lunar and celestial influences.”

Jeff sounds like a hippie. With his long hair, beard and John Lennon glasses, he looks the part too. But his business practices come straight out of the Republican playbook. A local health food store to which he sold produce was bought by a national chain which required him to take out a $2 million insurance policy. Jeff took a dim view of this new requirement (“in case someone got ill eating garlic?” he asked sarcastically) and chose instead to start a community supported agriculture (CSA) program to skirt the health code. Instead of selling vegetables directly, a CSA sells shares in the farm to customers which entitle them to farm produce.

This sounds like a business owner flaunting regulations designed to protect his customers, but Katz isn’t worried about this in the least. “They are reestablishing a connection to the land, reuniting a lost tie between the city and the country, developing a mutual trust and friendship with a farmer, and helping wealth to be created locally.”

From Tennessee, Katz takes us east to North Carolina’s Earthaven Ecovillage where we meet Cailen Campbell. He’s there demonstrating his wooden cider press, but can only accept donations because local health authorities quite reasonably insist that he pasteurize or irradiate his cider before selling it, a process that Cailen believes would destroy important nutrients and enzymes.

The FDA created this rule after a batch of Odwalla juice tainted with E. coli sickened 66 people and killed an infant, but Katz believes the rule isn’t needed. His argument against safety standards sounds like it could have come from the US Chamber of Commerce:

Without minimizing the death of that baby, we have to assess the risk as a relative phenomenon. We live with a certain level of risk every time we get into a car. We live with the risk of crime, violence, and bites from venomous creatures. We live with the risk of heart disease and cancer. We may do things that limit our risk, but then again, we may not. That decision is generally regarded as the prerogative of the individual.

Katz prefers individual choice and responsibility over government regulations, so we’re not surprised to learn a few pages later that he favors free trade:

The rallying cry of pro-globalization forces is Free Trade! Free Trade! Then why do many people who wish to buy or sell food at the local level find it prohibited? Isn’t simple exchange the origin and essence of Free Trade™? How could “free trade” preclude small-time neighborly buying and selling of basic foods?

These are boilerplate Republican talking points, so it’s surprising that this paragraph is immediately preceded by a lengthy quotation from the French Marxist writer and political activist Guy Debord. As already mentioned, Katz claims to align himself with the anti-globalization movement, but here he is one chapter later demands more free trade.

One might fairly object that in the passage above he’s advocating for small production and neighbors selling to each other. But in a chapter devoted to a semi-legal movement of producers and consumers of unpasteurized milk products, his main example of the little guy oppressed by government regulations is Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk dairy farm in the United States with 350 cows and $10 million in annual revenue, founded by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

Against all evidence and common sense, Katz believes that pasteurization is unnecessary. According to him, unpasteurized milk has natural enzymes and harmless bacteria that provide a host of health benefits and healing properties and protect it from developing dangerous pathogens. He quotes Organic Pastures’ CEO Mark McAffee, who boasts about his company’s safety record: “Twenty-four million servings and zero reported illnesses!” That was true in 2006 when the book was published. Since then, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has on four occasions ordered the recall of Organic Pastures’ products from store shelves after they sickened and hospitalized several children. Tests of Organic Pastures milk and cheese found that they were tainted with dangerous E. coli and Campylobacter bacteria.

E. coli infections are more common in children under 12, and in most cases, symptoms are abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. But up to 15% patients will develop a more serious condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) requiring extensive medical treatment. Seven-year old Chris Martin developed this condition after consuming raw Organic Pastures milk that his parents bought for him because they were told it could help with his allergies. When his infection worsened, he was airlifted to the local hospital where he was placed in intensive care and suffered renal failure, pancreatitis, seizures and permanent kidney damage. His family incurred over $450,000 in medical bills.

Sale of raw milk for human consumption in retail stores is illegal in most states due to dangers like these. But it’s legal in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and in the free-spirited western states of Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and California. The milk that boy drank came with a warning label: “Warning – raw (unpasteurized) milk and raw milk dairy products may contain disease-causing micro-organisms.” Katz would approve of this commonsense regulatory compromise that preserves individual liberty and personal responsibility, but it’s difficult to see how a warning label adequately protected the rights of a seven year old boy who will need a transplant within 20 years because his kidneys will almost certainly fail.

To this day, Organic Pastures protects its access to consumers by fighting against the return of food safety rules that would greatly lower the chances of such accidents, a fight aided and abetted by food activists like Sandor Katz and non-profit organizations like The Weston A. Price Foundation, a group that actively lobbies in Washington against FDA regulations in the name of consumer choice.

In the book, Katz repeatedly claims that big government food regulations are unnecessary, and were put in place by large agribusiness companies to keep small producers and farmers—a group which is broad enough to include an $10 million/year businesses like Organic Pastures—from selling fresh, wholesome and nutrient-dense foods that he prefers. It’s an absurd claim that ignores the fact that his reasons for opposing food regulations are identical to the arguments of right wing lobbyists like The Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization funded by The Coca-Cola Company and Tyson Foods that advocates for “personal responsibility” and “protecting consumer choices” against meddling government bureaucrats.

Katz praises the efforts of raw milk enthusiasts to avoid complying with safety regulations in states where selling raw milk is still illegal. In Australia, raw milk is sold as a beauty product; in Tennessee, its labeled as “for pet consumption only”; in Wisconsin, one producer markets her raw cheese as fish bait. And there are more interesting methods:

The most widespread means of circumventing laws prohibiting the sale of raw milk is to redefine the relationship between the parties so no sales transaction takes place. Generally the way this works is that a group of consumers will enter into a “cow-share” or “goat-share” contract with a farmer, whereby they technically own the animal and pay the farmer to maintain it on their behalf. In this way the sales transaction is eliminated, and so laws restricting the sale of raw milk are not actually broken… This is a great food-consciousness and community-building exercise: shareholders get to know each other, and they all get to experience the farm and the farmer and the animals at regular intervals

One key claim of raw food advocates like Katz and even mainstream pundits like Michael Pollan is that food safety is an issue for industrial agribusinesses, and purchasing food directly from local small-scale farmers who milk pasture-raised cows is much safer. This claim would no doubt come as a surprise to a community in southwest Washington that saw an E. coli outbreak in 2005 which sickened eighteen people and hospitalized two children with hemolytic uremic syndrome after they drank unpasteurized milk.

The program was run by a small family farm called Dee Creek Farm with advice and guidance from Weston A. Price Foundation’s Spokane chapter, and were milking just five cows for 45 families. A few months before the outbreak, the Washington State Department of Agriculture send the owners a letter asking them to either comply with dairy farm licensing requirements or cease distributing milk. They responded with a letter arguing that because they were selling shares, not milk, they had no legal obligation to comply.

All the shareholders of Dee Creek Farm knew their farmer, and visited the farm to verify that the cows were raised in humanely and milked in sanitary conditions, just like so many advocates of local food suggest. But none of these supposedly empowered, responsible consumers noticed any of the ten milk processing violations that state investigators found on the farm just after the outbreak.

Local food advocates like Sandor Katz, Michael Pollan and Weston A. Price foundation spread dangerous myths and sentimental fairy tales about the safety of locally produced food, like the idea that unpasteurized, locally produced milk is safer and contains enzymes that protect against dangerous bacteria, or that consumers with no experience with food safety, microbiology or farming can protect themselves by verifying that their local farm is suitably bucolic.

The fraudulence of these claims is made evident by the CDC’s report that raw milk, often sold by local producers on the black market, is 150 times more likely to cause a disease outbreak than industrially produced pasteurized milk. Raw milk outbreaks are 13 times more likely to lead to hospitalization and 3 times more likely to affect children under 20 years of age. This is because improper handling of pasteurized milk is more likely to occur off the farm during processing, where the risk is contamination by less dangerous Norovirus bacteria. But improperly handled raw milk risks coming into contact with animal manure, the source of the far more dangerous E. coli and Campylobacter.

Unsurprisingly, dairy farms run by amateurs circumventing food safety regulations and relying on consumer with no knowledge of proper milk processing standards to hold them accountable turns out to be a public danger. It’s more surprising that radical food activists, who claim to be part of the Left, would give this moral legitimacy by calling it a form of civil disobedience when it has much more in common with pro-business policies of the right.

Sandor Katz isn’t completely unaware of the strangeness of his position. He notes that the organizer of the Nashville raw milk underground is a Christian homeschooler who has a quote from George W. Bush in her email signature and once asked the community to vote for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Tennessee because of his pro-raw milk views.

Luckily, Katz decides that he’s not willing to abandon every other item on the progressive agenda to fight for raw milk, but he marvels at the supposedly profound mystery of people from across the political spectrum coming together to support the same cause, as if that demonstrates that the raw food underground is a truly populist movement that transcends the calcified partisan divisions of Washington. But in reality, Katz finds himself with Republican allies because on this issue, his position is indistinguishable from Republican dogma. He thinks he’s transcended party politics, but he’s just crossed the aisle.

The Silicon Valley tech startup community finds itself in almost the same situation, particularly sharing economy startups like Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. These companies say they’re trying to revolutionize the economy to achieve what could be considered leftist goals: making it more sustainable, less competitive, more collaborative, empowering to individuals by disrupting more established industries and supporting human-scale community rather than empty, alienated consumerism in mega-malls.

The sharing economy is supported by a grassroots advocacy organization called Peers, which was created and run by a group of well-meaning progressive activists who’ve held leadership positions in organizations like Obama For America, Organizing For America, the Democratic party, the Obama White House. With one or two exceptions, these young progressives don’t have a financial interest in promoting the sharing economy, so there are few reasons to doubt their sincerity.

Nonetheless, their preferred method for advancing the cause is to fight on behalf of venture-backed tech startups against what they think of as intrusive government regulations that serve only to protect incumbent businesses, an argument that has won them support from the pro-business Cato Institute and libertarians like TV host John Stossel and writers at Reason magazine.

Some believe that tech and food entrepreneurs who claim to be fighting for left-wing goals are deceiving the public, using the rhetoric of public benefit as a marketing tool or trying to hide their profit-driven motivations. But the truth is that many of these entrepreneurs and their fellow-travelers don’t see the profit motive as contrary to helping people.

Rather than thinking about their activities in traditional political terms, involving questions about capitalism, regulation, the role of government, democratic control over the economy and market failure, these entrepreneurs see only problems: industrially produced food lacks nutrient density; people in our society continue to go hungry; we own many under-utilized assets; unemployment is high; transportation is expensive; our consumption levels are unsustainable; and so on.

These kinds of social problems have traditionally been raised by those on the left. For social democrats, they were part of an argument for more government regulation to tame the excesses of the free market; for communists, they pointed to the necessity for society to go beyond capitalism. But everyone agreed that they were problems of capitalism. Even strident pro-capitalist conservatives agreed. By downplaying the problems or finding other causes, they tacitly conceded that if the problems were real, they would delegitimize capitalism.

This is not true for today’s entrepreneurial problem solvers. They sound like bleeding heart liberals because they draw attention to poverty, environmental problems, financial crises, unemployment, monopolies, etc., but in the end they refuse the classic “ideological” position. Instead, they see many problems in the world and diverse actors who can solve them: governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-profits and yes, even corporations so long as they’re helmed by sincere, compassionate, socially conscious and environmentally responsible people.

When these post-ideological pragmatists argue for less regulation and for a pro-business environment, it’s generally not out of a committed belief in free market capitalism and the virtues of corporations as such. As we see in Sandor Katz’s case, they may even be passionate critics of some corporations. If they have a worldview, it’s one that opposes big against small, top-down against bottom-up, static incumbents against dynamic, disruptive innovators—not capitalism against the people, or against government.

The framing of political issues as problems to be pragmatically solved is the intellectual move that creates the phenomenon we see so often coming from Silicon Valley: leftist-sounding rhetoric that conceals a right-wing agenda. But it also creates the phenomenon of people who are progressives in latte-sipping, Prius-driving, home-fermenting cultural sense, but nonetheless support pro-business causes and invoke free market capitalist rhetoric without any sense that there might be a contradiction here.

As I’ve argued, the majority in cyberlibertarian Silicon Valley are Obama voters. Portraying them as malevolent Randians marching under the banner of greed and self-interest is a false analysis that simply translates their views into the traditional ideological left-vs-right division.

The lines aren’t clearly drawn. Venture-backed startup founders believe they are populist rebels. A group of progressive Democrats fight against unions to defeat city regulations against unlicensed taxis and illegal hotels. Sandor Katz criticizes neoliberal globalization and praises “civil disobedience” by businesses against government food safety laws. Then you have someone like Justine Tunney, a leader in the Occupy Wall Street who praises her new employer Google for making life better for the 99%, and “having more positive impact on society than any other organization on earth.”

The typical explanation for these kind of “strange bedfellows” situations is that they are simply deceiving us about their commitment to the left’s agenda—the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” interpretation. At best this could only be true for the tech entrepreneurs, but it’s a more widespread problem which is best explained through one of Žižek’s classic jokes that illustrates the way that in these post-ideological times, ideology still functions through disavowal.

In the joke, the famous scientist Niels Bohr has a horseshoe above his door to ward off evil spirits, and on seeing it his friend asks “Surely you don’t believe in that superstition?” Bohr replies, “Of course not! I’m a scientist! But I heard that it works even if you don’t believe it.”

So it is with today’s confused activists. We see them fighting for pro-business, pro-innovation regulations and ask “Surely you aren’t a conservative?” They reply “Of course not! I am a progressive! But I heard that removing barriers to innovation works even if you don’t believe in it.”