Review: Meals Matter

Meals Matter

Michael Symons, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy Columbia University Press, 2020. 376 pp. ISBN 9780231196024.

Raymond D. Boisvert (Siena College)

In 1947 the American philosopher John Dewey identified a “momentous” fact: the “separation of the moral from other human interests and attitudes, especially from the ‘economic’ “. What had traditionally been called “political economy” now went by the unaccompanied noun “economy.”   The original qualifier was important. After all, the study of how best to distribute goods and services was one which, if done well, would take into account social, cultural and political considerations.  An economic system in a democratic republic, for example, should, as it formulates prescriptions, consider republican ideals. An economy is not like a thunderstorm, something over which humans have little control. Rather, it is more like a delivery vehicle in need of guidance.  In the case of 18th century democratic republics, that guidance should be consistent with how a republic characterized the common good that was its raison d’être.

In spite of this desideratum, a particular historical trajectory had done exactly what Dewey decried: disconnecting “economy” from moral, social and political considerations.  This move stands at the heart of Michael Symons’ book. Like Dewey, Symons worries about an economic system that consciously, purposefully, disconnects itself from the cluster of considerations that contribute  to the formation of a good society.  Such a society could be defined, following Dewey, as  one which is democratic (concerned with the welfare of the citizenry), liberal (characterized by freedom), and egalitarian (aiming to make equality a reality in the lives of citizens).

Symons moves in a similar direction, but with an inflection from his favorite philosopher, Epicurus.   The good society is one that maximizes the opportunities for a pleasurable existence, with “pleasure’ understood in a nuanced, well-balanced way.   Epicureanism, properly understood, can, for example,  combine self-interest and general conviviality.  This is what Symons identifies as the “diner’s knot or paradox of the table.”    “Now Epicurean materialism returns for an economics of togetherness, because, according to the diner’s knot or paradox of the table, the individual pursuit of taste-pleasures beget [sic] table-pleasure, which begets all those “together” words–consumption, commensality,  companionship, conviviality, community, commonwealth, etc.” (15).  In this way a key liberal notion, individual emphasis on self-preservation, freedom and pleasure, can be preserved by associating, rather than separating it  from communitarian ideals.  Epicurus also models a way of living that avoids contentious, overly abstract disputations  “Sticking with empiricism, hedonism, and practicality, Epicurus avoided ideology, creed, and even, in a way, philosophy.  Disputation most usefully revolved around living, and the best way to do it”(78).

In the history related by Symons, those who helped shape political economy once took the pleasures of the table as central.   His own book has as its aim recovering  this centrality.  “The neglected discipline of gastronomy regrounds theory, makes it literally radical. The answer to the Market is not better metaphysics but knowing that meals matter” (xix).

Adam Smith, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes represent influential figures who took for granted that the distribution of food, something, after all,  basic  to human life, provided the model for political economy.  A good society was one in which the citizens would be participants in a banquet whose bounty and distribution was the fruit of a political economy.  Such a political economy, in order to serve its end, would not disconnect the “economic” from the “political.”  Instead, there would be conjunction, a conjunction serving as a worthy culmination for 18th century liberalism, a liberalism that was well-rooted in concrete concerns rather than in ideological purity.

The story Symons relates is one of decay. Traditional liberalism, centered around the “diner’s knot,” came to be purposefully and consciously disentangled.  The diner’s knot blended individual pursuits and the establishment of a commonwealth. The unraveling of this knot was aided by a decidedly non-Epicurean, more abstract approach, one focused not on food, but on money.  “Liberalism” best exemplified in the banquet, morphed into “neoliberalism,” best exemplified by the accumulation of wealth. If there is a “villain” to Symons’ story it is Ludwig von Mises, the theorist who best articulated this new, fully rationalized, anti-traditional, framing of the “economy.” Mises is “ “the mid-twentieth-century “godfather” of neoliberalism and the closest to this book’s villain.” (85)

Following the theme of the displacement of food by money, Symons makes a distinction between (a) the “market”  in its earlier sense of a place where citizens came to purchase food, and (b) the “Market” in which the predominance of abstract money replaced all other concerns.  Thus “Political economy,” which once was synonymous with “household management,” came to be transmuted into the ‘Economy’ which now, divorced from the household, had a life of its own.  One result: neoliberalism and its ukase that no interference with the economy was to be  brooked. Best to leave it alone (laissez faire), unmolested by social, moral and political considerations. Such social, moral and political considerations would muddle things. The new “economists” sought purity.  If they could not locate such purity in ordinary community life, they would invent it. They would eliminate, in theory, what remained substantive and real in practice.    “Over the decades, economists removed inconvenient realities. They ignored the original oikos [home],brushed off politics as noneconomic, pushed aside material needs and desires as “utility,” and abandoned all values but Market price.” (158)

The result: an anti-liberal dictatorship of the Market which passes itself off as liberal. It does so by insisting that the only meaning of “liberal” is individual freedom from outside control.  Symons aims to challenge this self-congratulatory tale. Drawing inspiration from Epicurus, Marx, and even Adam Smith, he seeks to restore the grounding of economic concerns in the market (lower case “m”).  There, “economics” is inseparable from considerations of nutrition, self-preservation, taste, and conviviality. The other Market (upper case “M”) is dominated, not by concrete edibles, but by abstract money.  It represents the world that has left traditional ways behind.  It is best suited to the “rationalized,” ‘bureaucratic” realm identified by Max Weber (x).   

The “market” is a place of sociability, of traditional ways, of learning by experience, of face-to-face interactions. The “Market” is a place where  personal relationships are downplayed and a fixed grid of rules and regulations takes on exaggerated importance.  Money, which, unlike market goods such as  lemons or  pepper, has no meaning in itself, is well suited to the new rationalization and bureaucratization.  Face-to-face human relationships, trust, friendship, interdependence, fade to the periphery.  Just as money is a neutral means of exchange, so all human relations become neutral until some rationalized structure is imposed on them.  Good-bye to the community banquet.  Hello  equality as (theoretical) absence of differential power in contractual agreements. Hello freedom as everyone’s (theoretical) capability of engaging in identical actions.  Hello “freedom” and “equality” understood,  as meaning that rich and poor are equally free to sleep under bridges. (Apologies to Anatole France and his well known line: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and steal loaves of  bread.”)

According to Symons, an Epicurean revival can both preserve what was best in liberalism and counter the over-individualistic side of things that led to neoliberalism. Here  we are brought back to the “diner’s knot.”  The need for food may be individualistic. It is indispensable for survival. At the same time the need for food leads to an awareness of interdependence and a desire for conviviality.  It is in this regard that “meals matter.”  The resulting social “knot”, ironic as this may seem, is inseparable from an individual’s hunger and its satisfaction. The recognition of the diner’s knot, sadly, disappears when we move from  “market” to  “Market.”  When money rather than food becomes the main mode of interaction, it is easier to forego the diner’s knot and think in terms of personal wealth accumulation.

The strength of Symons’ book is the conversational way he introduces the story of how political economy became “economy”.  Along the way, readers are not only  introduced  to familiar players like Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and François  Quesnay, but lesser known players like Margaret Cavendish and  Jean-Baptiste Say.

The main weakness of the text has to do with how it is long on diagnosis, but short on prescription.   The book has a utopian feel about it, a sense that if only people would take food and its enjoyment seriously,  all would be well.  Even if it is outside this book’s scope to develop an alternative, it would have been helpful to identify a path considered to be the best candidate for developing such an alternative.  Would the author, for instance, like to promote a renewed Keynesianism, a revived Marxianism or perhaps a comprehensive reworking inspired by the efforts of Amartya Sen? Given the lineage which links Epicureanism and  Utilitarianism (aim of general happiness; psychology which asserts that humans seek pleasure and shun pain) , would it be fruitful to give a reformulated Utilitarianism another look? The text mentions people like Keynes, Marx,and Sen, it critiques the identification of value and utility as represented by W. Stanley Jevons.  Such indications remain just that, indications. There is no suggestion of  how a fertile next step would involve following up on a particular strand by developing its general orientation into a comprehensive alternative to neoliberalism.

In general it may be that Epicurus as inspirational figure is the problem. For all its strengths, Epicureanism suffers from a major political weakness: it neither inspires nor encourages the kind of struggle, anxiety and sacrifice requisite of reformers.  Epicurus as Symons points out, “praised ataraxy–lack of anxiety, contentment” (78). Reformers tend to  live lives definitely not marked by ataraxy, un-disturbedness.  Instead anxiety, worry, jail time, even death are constant presences.

Epicurus belongs to Hellenistic, post-Aristotelian,  philosophy and its new, non-social emphasis: care of the self. This emphasis can too easily lead to a life of withdrawal.

This is the downside of championing Epicurus.  Earlier Greek philosophy (Plato and Aristotle) had been unabashedly social.  The Republic takes for granted a setting in which interdependence is primordial.  Using Symons’ terminology we could say that Plato had no need to highlight a “diner’s knot.”  Humans, for Plato, are primordially knotted together.  Since Epicureans, by contrast,  begin with the primordiality of encapsulated individuals, an Epicurean-inspired life can readily become one in which individuals leave society’s problems alone. Instead, they concentrate on care for the self, and on living happy, contented lives. The Epicureans,i would say while admitting the irony, championed their own version of laissez faire.  On the last page of Symons’ book, this is explicitly embraced.  There, political engagement is supported, but with an important qualification.  “Brave souls can go, hesitatingly, into representative politics” (304). This is followed by a favorable mention of Voltaire’s famous exhortation about cultivating our garden,  an exhortation which can easily fall prey to the “care of the self” tradition.

Bibliographical Reference

Dewey, John (1947; 1989). “Liberating the Social Scientist,.” In The Later Works  vol. 15: 1942-1948, 225-238.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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