I am not a politician. I am just a simple person who has come to break down this system. – Volodymyr Zelensky
There are three strands of thought that are bothering me right now, so what’s the best way to disentangle these ideas?
First, let’s start with the food of my past. I was searching for “stuff” on the kind of cooking that I grew up with and came across Sharadha Kalyanam’s “Radical Culinary Love: Cooking as healing praxis in the time of COVID-19” – in the Journal of Global Indigeneity. It’s about food, yes, but it’s about more than that – it’s about food as “a strategy for resistance against the systems of power” – against white supremacist, racist, capitalist and cis-heteropatriarchal systems of oppression.
Most of those words are familiar but Cis-Heteropatriarchy I had to look up – and it’s “a system of power and control that positions cis-straight white makes as superior and normative in their expression of gender and sexuality.”
Another strand – reading a paper on the history of Operations Research by Kirby (2000) called “Paradigm change in operations research: Thirty years of debate” I learn that OR can be seen as a tool of management, an approach that seeks “to control the workplace to control the response” and enable the “means by which the work-force is more efficiently exploited.” This line of thinking has its basis in Marxist ideas, the division between owners and workers.
In these first two strands there is this element of violence being done by one group to another, the enforcing of dominant ideas over minority communities – something that is not related to just the West but is an inextricable part of the culture and practices of my cultural history as well.
The third strand also has to do with food – Dr Michael Greger’s work on the research into nutrition. Greger shows how the benefits of a plant-based diet are definitely proved in the literature – so why is it not the default diet around the world? It’s about the money, of course, the food business is big business and there are powerful lobbies for sectors that try and keep their revenues flowing in – using the same tactics that the tobacco industry used a generation ago.
There is a difference between this last strand and the first two – and it has to do with how personal the whole thing is. The ideas in the first two papers include exploitation, dispossession, erasure – concepts that suggest an intentional programme by a dominant group against all others. Greger, on the other hand, talks about the system and in particular the money – and how it drives behaviour. It’s not that the bosses of these companies are evil and hatching plans to target you – it’s just the way things are set up and they use the system to make money and get an advantage.
Now, I’d like to step away from the specific ideas in these papers as I’m not really talking about feminist theory, operations research or nutrition science. It’s the idea of the system that’s interesting here.
One approach to thinking of the system is as a big collection of interests, relationships and assets that are maintained through the exercise of power. Is this power something external – aimed at keeping others down? Or is it internal – aimed at protecting one’s own position, even at the expense of others?
There is always inertia in a system – it’s travelling in a particular direction and takes time to change course, even longer to reverse. It’s not personal, some might argue, it’s the system. And it’s definitely not the fault of those affected by the system. The only people who must take responsibility are the ones with the power to change the system. In an organisation that’s the management and in a country it’s the politicians. What you see at an individual and personal level are the effects of the incentives structured and maintained by those that have power. The aim of any group that wants to change things, then, is to influence those in power and get them to do the right thing.
It’s harder to do that, of course, if your government or company leadership are up for sale. And it doesn’t help if people who could do something but who also benefit from the system just go along with it because that’s the easy thing to do – you could argue they’re complicit with the violence if they don’t say anything.
I suppose it all really comes down to just one question.
What are you willing to do?