The Bristol Skipchen – Cooking Against the Tide

In a world ruled by money it makes perfect sense for six million tonnes of extremely high quality food to be discarded every year in the UK alone before it reaches the shops, and for those shops to chuck out another six million tonnes. That’s about half a kilo per person per day. The numbers stack up, and so does the waste. If it doesn’t feed people, so what? It may well feed ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity.’

It would all be fine, if it wasn’t so patently, obviously insane. And deeply immoral. I won’t waste words saying why. If you can’t see that, go back to watching the football. Aren’t Man U looking good! So most days I wander down the road to the Bristol Skipchen, in the Crofters’ Rights in Stokes Croft, and help serve up about a hundred delicious, nutritious meals made entirely – entirely – of food that was headed for the bin. Today we had chicken and chips with broccoli and salad, and all-day breakfasts of baked beans on toast with egg and chips. And some yummy desserts, with lashings of cream. And tea and coffee. The supply is limitless. Every suburb in Bristol could have one and there would still be no problem producing the meals, because happily there is also an abundant supply of people who are so disgusted with this waste they’re happy to help. Let me honour all those folks on farms, in restaurants, markets and other outlets who hate throwing out good food but that’s the way it works so they have to. Many go out of their way to make sure the Skipchen gets it instead. People pay what they feel, what they are able, or nothing. This system reliably produces more than enough money to pay the utilities bills and the odd overhead.

Why?

Why do we do it? For many of us the simple sanity of making sure that, instead of getting thrown away, good food gets eaten by people who want or need it is more than enough. I don’t presume to speak for my mates but there is also a general despair that ‘the system’ can be that broken while our power structures go on thinking it just needs ‘better management.’ Whatever that is. What worries me, though, is that there is in fact very little bad management involved. Quite the contrary. Don’t be fooled. All appearances notwithstanding, the people of the UK and indeed of most of the world are actually living in a highly-organised, very well-designed system, one that recurs cyclically through history. From the point of view of a handful of the super-rich, things are ticking along very nicely indeed. To illustrate: since the supposed ‘Crash’ of 2008, the financial assets alone (not the net worth) of the richest 1,000 individuals in Britain have increased by an amount greater than the national debt of £119bn. Tax that and we literally wouldn’t have the debt. Let’s have a brief language lesson. The language is Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire (although most of its educated inhabitants actually spoke Greek.) Divide et impera. Divide and rule. Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. (As in, they’ll put up with anything if you give them enough …) The swine are doing it again. The Occupy movement made popular the cry that 1% of the world’s population owned 80% of its resources. If only. With the world population around eight American billion – eight thousand million (the English billion would be eight million million but that’s history) – that would be eighty million people. In fact it is a tiny, tiny fraction of that. A 2010 US Supreme Court declared that corporations had the same rights as citizens. If we then consider the influence of these uber-citizens, economist David Rothkopf has shown that the number controlling 80% of the value of the world’s multinational corporations is 6,000. You could easily fit all the people running the entire global show, including the CEOs of those companies and the very small number of ultra-rich who own pretty much everything else into Ashton Gate stadium and still have room for all their butlers, PR flacks and personal cooks. In his stunning analysis of the global situation, The Precariat Charter, economist Guy Standing takes it all apart and shines light into every scabrous little corner of this very deliberate, organised system. If there is a core to his thesis, it is that the objective of the super-rich, the plutocrats, and their servants in the salariat, is to downgrade the rest of us from the status of free citizens in any meaningful sense of the term and turn us into ‘human capital.’ A resource that, like money, can be taken out and used in exactly the quantity and for only the time required and then put back in the box and forgotten, requiring no attention, no resources, no life. And the more there is to spare, the better. It’s no accident that there are no personnel managers any more. Now they’re ‘human resources’ people, an ugly phrase if ever there was one. He calls us a new, emerging, dangerous class called the Precariat. Those whose lives are insecure in every respect. Precarious.

Divide and Rule

Actually there are already so many of us in the precariat that if we were all aware of it, if we could all see our common fate and our common cause, the plutocracy would be having trouble sleeping at night. But they sleep just fine, because of that good old Roman ruse, divide and rule. The precarians whose parents were old-style workers, who just want a ‘proper job’ with security, decent pay and conditions but can’t get one don’t blame the plutocrats. In fact they tend to believe every word of the ugly new liberal utilitarian doctrine they preach. The problem that they see is … another branch of the precariat. The migrants. The ones who have taken ‘their’ jobs. They’re probably right, as far as they can see. If UKIP has its way and all the migrants are chucked out and the doors closed to Europe, it is just possible that many more would get a job – on the minimum wage and a zero-hours contract. No paid holidays, of course. And quite possibly a lower minimum wage than we currently ‘enjoy’ because it’s from nasty old Brussels that the only significant pressure on higher minimum standards comes. The meat in the sandwich section of the precariat consists of a rag-tag collection of your friendly neighbourhood enemies: dole bludgers, migrants, Roma, druggies, ex-cons, even those pampered, over-privileged people with disabilities – any of the classes who regularly appear as demons on the front page of the Daily Mail. Most especially migrants. Why shouldn’t we hate them? If for no other reason, such as they’re just like us, people doing what they can to survive, then, perhaps, because it’s entirely possible that we, or our children, will end up in the same boat. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into this ill-assorted class these days, with so many laws to break, so many drugs around and so many cops available to bust the users. (Cops who would be far more gainfully employed catching white-collar criminals. But we all know that. Wonder why it doesn’t happen?) Migration, too, could easily be your or your kids’ fate. Why would your kids stay here, with the grim prospects hanging over them? At least if they can get into somewhere outside the EU they wouldn’t have that huge student loan hanging over their head, destroying their hopes. The student loan that bought the crap degree that for so many has turned into a part-time job tending bar. And if we migrate, or our kids, we wouldn’t want to be treated like that. Actually there are significantly more Britons living and working abroad than there are migrants in Britain, so the risk is perfectly real.

But the two essential reasons not to wallop the victims are utterly simple. One: they’re not to blame. They may, in some part, be an obstacle, but they are not the cause. Two: They are actually acts in that great, attention-diverting circus. ‘They’, the global engineers, need us to blame our fellows. A really good reason not to.

Then there’s the third part of the precariat – the entrepreneurial young go-getters who spend their lives writing proposals, endlessly networking, up-dating their CV’s, going to job interviews, putting together schemes for some nifty new initiative. All unpaid work, which is the conspicuous characteristic of all precarian lives – endless unpaid work, often done to meet crushing deadlines. Applications close on the 31st! I’ll just have to pull an all-nighter. Unpaid work, and lots of it, is common to all members of the precariat. Forms to fill. Trick questions. Get them wrong and poof! goes your meagre benefit. Interviews for non-jobs. Ad nauseam. The third lot don’t like the migrants, either, and tend to view the resentful, under-educated offspring of the old proletariat as a hopeless, useless drain on scarce resources. People who should stop whingeing, get off their bums and make something happen, dammit. Everyone blaming every-one else. All looking the wrong way, egged on by the mass media which is owned and run by … guess who? No. Things are ticking along just hunky-dory, if your home is a boat the size of Colston Hall tooling around the Med.

Bread and Circuses

So where does that fit in? The policy of cheap food and entertainment? They haven’t bothered too much about the bread bit, because they don’t have to. The Roman circuses happened only occasionally. These days the circus never stops. Just sit on a bus and look around. Everyone’s staring at a screen, gulping down a steady stream of gaudy media and endless chatter. Full-time circuses, regularly spiced up with messages of fear – of other precarians. The Romans would be green with envy.

Wake up!

We just have to wake up. Don’t be divided. Don’t watch the circus. We can change the world in three simple steps. One: stop blaming other precarians. Every chance you get, tell them they’re your sisters and brothers and explain why. Two: Turn off the circus. It’s a phone. Use it as one. You’d be amazed at what happens when you stop distracting yourself with trivia. Three: Do something disruptive. Start another Skipchen, for instance. Because if you start thinking about, doing stuff for others, they do it for you. Then miracles start to happen.

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