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Populism And Its Discontents

Apr. 16, 2018

Populism And Its Discontents
Reflections From Venice, Part 2

By Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA Executive Director
March 2018

I began my trip in the Alitalia lounge at JFK airport, a room ablaze with debate and rising tensions. The Italian parliamentary election results were arriving just as our flight was taking off. The outcome had been predicted for weeks so there were no real surprises—the sluggish economy and reforms under the center-left PD party had made them deeply unpopular.

The people are mad and searching for answers. These theatrics are playing out in much of the global North: the post-WWII consensus that once delivered relative stability, shared meaning, and a specific social contract that values hard work, loyalty, cheap food, automobiles, and paid vacations feels ever distant. Admittedly, this social contract worked better in some places than others and has been fading since Presidents Carter and Reagan. Nevertheless, the contract managed to capture public imagination about what society is for.

Early food movement voices emerged at this time, questioning the validity and sanity of this contract (built upon the foundations of cheap, industrial food). We can do better, they argued, even if the conditions to transition from one era to the next were not yet there.

So, how auspicious, my pilgrimage to Slow Food territory coincides with a discouraging spread of populism in Italy. While it may be tempting to simply ring our hands in response, I suggest we do better. We understand populism to use jujitsu against it. Yes, it is difficult to appear urgent in these times – especially if we are called Slow. Regardless, we live in populism’s ecosystem. We have a coherent critique of this industrial (and post-industrial) age, of the social contract that binds together urban with rural, supply with demand, and the joy of family and community with food and place.

Pluralism versus Populism

I understand populism’s appeal. I understand the temptation to strike out against the large, faceless institutions that run and ruin our lives. However, I also recognize its hollow promises. Populists claim they speak for forgotten rural communities. Meanwhile, we know and work with (and may actually be) rural farmers who are digging for the future. We are the ones who have climbed into the trenches to exert changes in permitting, zoning, and countless food regulations that free up farmers and fishers to achieve freedom.

As biodiversity teaches us, for the future to exist it must be complex. While we may not be able to compete with the angry and simplistic voices of populism, we must provide a clear vision of the future we want. And here’s one of the difficult parts: We cannot rely too heavily upon simple slogans (although if you’ve got a good one, share it and let’s use it!). Rather, we cultivate our diverse communities by trusting everyday eaters to embrace their own journey through food, to experience the joys of food on their own terms, and to trust the process of discovery. After all, that’s how we got here.

As we grow–and our force is growing–we must also recognize that we share the authorship of our future with many other voices, experiences, and vantage points. This makes our work messy and complicated (not necessarily helpful when competing with simplicity for attention). Whether you operate upstream or down, in policy change or building new food businesses, our theory of change is the same: The Slow Food mire poix.

It is within this global context of emergent fear in the face of fading globalization that I wish to turn attention to Slow Food past, present, and future. We must strike a balance between fear and hope, joy and justice, fighting the system and working with it. I predict we are poised to roll out a new, agile Slow Food.

Read Other Posts In This Series

Part 1: Reflections From Venice

Part 3: Does Italy Matter? Does Europe Matter?

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