Many Mouths: the Politics of Food in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State, Nadja Durbach, Cambridge University Press £34.99

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Many Mouths is “a study of the material and the symbolic importance of feeding programmes initiated by the British government for particular target populations from the 1830s through the 1960s”. Focusing on the nation state and its relationship with food programme ‘recipients’, the book uses case studies — paupers, prisoners, famine victims, prisoners of war, schoolchildren, wartime civilians on the home front, and pregnant women, infants, and toddlers — to discuss the role of food in political relations between government and the governed.
The topic might sound dry, but Nadja Durbach — a historian of modern Britain at the University of Utah — has taken an illuminating bottom-up approach towards the subject.
The book — rich in evidence and written with passion — brings out the nuances of successive UK government interventions in public food provision. It discusses the horrific race and gender assumptions of the Victorian bourgeoisie as they sought to tailor food programmes in order to bolster the physical and educational attributes of a growing urban working class.
At the same time, they attempted to manipulate the behaviour of those left behind in the penal system and the poor house. It also shines light on the British Empire as its imperialist rationale loomed over colonial and domestic food programmes and their roots in exploitation.
The fascinating issue of cuisine as state propaganda is also a recurring theme — from the British ‘right’ to roast beef, to state-sanctioned traditions invented to celebrate public festivals and military victories. Significantly throughout, Durbach discusses how state-run food programmes may have been developed for UK government political ends, but the target recipients frequently pushed back to inform outcomes and social meanings with tremendous political energy and dignity.
The British state, when confronted by tidal surges of class struggle, has been occasionally forced away from free market ideology into the provision of effective public food programmes with a materialist perspective that bordered on Marxism.
“In the immediate aftermath of World War I — during which the German population had been nearly starved to death as a deliberate British policy — the British state acknowledged its obligation to provide its own citizens with the ‘elementary needs of life’.”
On that point, the historical cases outlined in Many Mouths may prove to be profoundly relevant in the period ahead. One of the cornerstone mythologies of neoliberal globalisation was the decline of the nation state in our affairs. In our age of recurring and constant crises — economic, ecological and epidemiological — the central actions and potentials of the nation state are being revealed. In the coming economic depression, states will be faced with two options.
They may push for greater exploitation through the increasingly discredited neoliberal tools of dispossession and austerity, or they may seek to re-enact the post-war class-consensus through state-led intervention and Keynesian compromise.
Which route they choose will depend on levels of political resistance, just as Durbach’s examples illustrate how the aspirations of the British state were tempered by and sensitive to public moods for political reform or revolt. Whatever iterations of state food-aid are developed in the coming economic downturn, the historical cases examined in Many Mouths reveal the fact that ‘recipients’ — no matter what their condition of material poverty or alienation — are unlikely to meekly accept food-aid with charitable servility.
Indeed, the appetite for resistance is already here: public restlessness over the post-Brexit import of US standards in food production from chlorinated chicken to hormone-ridden beef; the ongoing resistance against GM crops; the recent success of the campaign led by Marcus Rashford for the extension of free school meals across summer 2020 in England; and community-led foodbanks. All are testament to the inspiring traditions of food politics and resistance identified by Durbach.
The task for socialists will be to extend and deepen the debates and activism across the food chain. There is no need to accept: the appalling environmental, animal welfare and labour standards of big farming and industrial food processing; tolerate profiteering supermarkets; permit international market speculation in food commodities; accept a ‘social safety net’ of minimal nutritional and food standards for people in poverty.
These are political decisions that can and must be challenged and counterposed: There is a need for food production to shift to agroecology for the sake of human nutrition, biodiversity, and climate resilience, and to eliminate millions of tons of food waste. There is a need — to borrow science writer Colin Tudge’s phrase — for Good Food for Everyone, Forever!