Agitation. There’s been plenty of demonstrations in the streets of the USA and Europe, but nothing has changed. A much greater unity of purpose is needed
From Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This responds to Geoffrey Cannon’s plea (1) for some more agitation in the field of public health and nutrition. As a long-standing member of the People’s Health Movement I agree (and was sorry to see no mention of PHM in the column); but action, however direct, in any one field has strict limitations.
I am reading Susan George’s Lugano Report II: This Time We Will Liquidate Democracy, her second savage satire on the current style of globalised capitalism. So far, this is only out in French and Spanish; the first Lugano Report is referenced here (2). She points out that recent agitation episodes, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados (pictures above), have been self-limited, did not coalesce, and have despaired and given up.
Many of the movements agitating against the corrupted and collapsed banking ‘system’ and the futile responses of governments, have called for radical reform and have gained public support. But they have not come together and united their appeals. Those in power are careful to keep these movements separated and fragmented by feeding into what Sigmund Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’. Susan George argues that if these groups integrated themselves into the struggle of well established organisations with greater experience, such as trades unions, ‘the red alert would have spread and coalesced’.
She deplores the fact that ecologists fight for the environment, trades unions for jobs, feminists for women. These movements stay specialised and seem not to realise that basically there is just one struggle, which is for justice and equity, and against what is still the prevailing ideology of reckless and irresponsible minimally regulated capitalism – greed, in a word, not only legal but endorsed by governments and apparently accepted as a fact of modern life by most of the rest of us.
I salute the agitators Geoffrey Cannon celebrates, but agitation has to ‘catch on’ and mobilise those who are relatively privileged, as are perhaps all the readers of this letter, as well as the masses of people in the world now who have no jobs or hope.
1 Cannon G. Food and nutrition, health and well-being. What I believe: 6. Agitate! [Column] World Nutrition May 2013, 4, 5, 296-307. Access pdf here
2 George S. The Lugano Report. On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century. London: Pluto, 1999.
Please cite as: Schuftan C. Agitation. Divided we will fall. [Feedback]. World Nutrition June 2013, 4, 6, xxx-xxx.
From Geoffrey Cannon, São Paulo, Brazil
Yes, I should have mentioned the People’s Health Movement, along with the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and the International Baby Milk Action Network; civil society organisations that are effective because they include militancy. Moreover, the People’s Health Movement, along with La Via Campesina, makes Susan George’s point, as indicated by Claudio Schuftan. Both have an effect on food systems and thus on nutrition not despite having a broad range of concerns, but because of this.
If my column seemed to suggest that everybody engaged in public health nutrition should be militant – to agitate, in the proper sense of the word – this is not what I meant. Thus, take the movements for votes for women and for Indian independence. The pictures above are emblematic of civil disobedience. Masses of people in the UK and India joined leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst and Mohandas Gandhi in public demonstrations, and many of them were prepared to break unjust laws in doing so. But most who supported these movements did so quietly. The militancy raised their consciousnesses and made them think, and also made political waves and in due course shook governments, encouraged reformers, and led to improved enfranchisement. Eventually the tide turned. Social and political change depended on the many good citizens, whose minds were changed. It also depended on the few agitators, who were prepared to put their careers, reputation and liberty on the line.
Have the Occupy! and Indignados uprisings turned out to be futile? In my opinion, no. They are steps on a path. They are reasons why conventional politics in various European countries are now shaken up. Official surveillance of any apparent dissidence is now extremely efficient. But without demonstrations and direct action as one part of an overall movement, and a new acceptance that people have a right to combine and stand up for what is right, the bad can only get worse.
It’s good that Claudio Schuftan cites Susan George, well-known for her statement ‘Hunger is not a scourge, it is a scandal’. In a poll of public health nutrition and allied professionals conducted in 2005 she was voted their most influential author (2). Susan George has always warned that activism is essential. Almost 40 years ago, after the 1974 Rome World Food Conference, she wrote of world hunger: ‘If past experience is any guide, the centre-to-centre connection will only aggravate and perpetuate hunger. Hope lies in the number and the strength of links that can be forged between “ordinary people”… and the pressures that these same “ordinary people” can bring to bear on their governments and on the “international community”. An end to hunger depends on how many of us refuse to tolerate the intolerable’ (3).
Agitation is not the only answer, and it can make bad worse. Militants do not always act in good faith. There is no panacea. But there are some nutritional issues that are so clear-cut, and where the current state of affairs is so entrenched and outrageous, that direct action is justified and necessary. Protection of breastfeeding is the case proving that militancy can be essential. Other clear-cut issues – from the specific to the more general – include promotion of ultra-processed products to children, partnerships with Big Food in programmes designed to prevent and control undernutrition or obesity, commodity speculation that causes food price fluctuation, and trade laws that displace and even destroy traditional food systems.
Yes, public health nutritionists alone will not be able successfully to challenge these injustices. Yes, alliances are certainly essential. But at the very least, when we see impoverished farmers and parents in the streets of cities in the global South, rising up in consciousness of political and economic systems that make their lives practically impossible, we should see why, and think of what we can do.
São Paulo, Brazil
1 Cannon G. Food and nutrition, health and well-being. What I believe: 6. Agitate! [Column] World Nutrition May 2013, 4, 5, 296-307.
2 Anon. Sources. In: Leitzmann C, Cannon G. The New Nutrition Science. Public Health Nutrition 2005, 8, 6(A): 800-804.
1 George S. How the Other Half Dies. The Real Reasons for World Hunger. London:
Please cite as: Cannon G. Agitation. United we can stand [Feedback]. World Nutrition June 2013, 4, 6, xxx-xxx.