Fields Ripe With Calamity
A Critique of Incredible Edible Todmorden
On the whole the case is a serious one, because, after all, we are living in turbulent times, when ‘all that exists deserves to perish.’
(Rosa Luxemburg to Luise and Karl Kautsky, 13 March 1906)
Kindness comes to Todmorden, as pure appearance.
For those not blinded by billboards, the writing is on the wall; and the word is “catastrophe.”
Capitalism, the global social system that subordinates everyone and everything in every way to the needs of an economy blindly developing for itself, has only ever brought us unasked-for impositions. Today, its inflictions include a systematic derangement of the environment. As the disastrous consequences of this have become as palpable as the blacking filth that the pursuit of profit once poured upon the land, more and more people desire to do something to prevent the looming apocalypse. One response is Incredible Edible, a small but widely-known group based in the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden. It proposes to “change the world.” Its emphasis is on locally-produced food. It hopes that food can serve as a “unifying language” such as will “bring people together to find a new way of living” and provide “a straightforward way of taking control” in “a world where ordinary people feel increasingly alienated from the forces that shape their lives, whether that’s government, banks, oil companies or agribusiness.” It also hopes to make Todmorden self-sufficient in food by 2018. How far has it advanced towards these goals in the last seven years?
Incredible Edible grows food on unused sites and land that has been made available to it. At least some of this food can be freely picked by passers-by. However, one rarely if ever sees anyone doing so. Moreover, even if the whole of the food Incredible Edible produces was taken by the local population, it would only provide a small fraction of its total food needs. The residents of Todmorden largely buy their food, just as most other people in the country do; and in the main they buy it from the same supermarket chains as nearly everyone else does.
The group has sought to encourage local people to grow more of their food themselves, but these efforts have been an abject failure. For example, a few years ago it held events on the Longfield estate and provided free seeds and a number of planting beds for residents to use. However, the original ten beds the group built have vanished without trace, while the four it later constructed on Longfield Row now lie in telling ruin by the side of the road. The quantity of food grown around the dismal hutches in which Pennine Housing keeps its tenants warm, dry and isolated for the benefit of capitalism remains tiny.
Incredible Edible has all along referred to its public growing of food as “propaganda plantings.” These plantings may not have fed the population of Todmorden but they have certainly fed the media, resulting in a profusion of deceptive articles and programmes that present the town as (amongst other things) “transformed by free food growing on its streets, parks and even its rooftops” (The Ecologist) and “Britain’s Greenest Town” (The Independent on Sunday, 29 November 2009). An unwary stranger might easily believe that the town was already self-sufficient in free food.
The falsehoods fabricated around Incredible Edible have given it a marketable public image with which to pursue its real projects. With the benefit of this image, the group has sought out the support and collaboration of existing institutions. As a result, it has obtained access to land and resources with which to create a couple of specialized institutions and a more professional propaganda. It has also gained the ear of figures, such as school authorities, who have the power to impose its initiatives on a somewhat indifferent public.
It seems there are no parts of the reigning order with which Incredible Edible will not collaborate. It has, for instance, no objection to being associated with the public relations plantings of the police, a body dedicated to the violent suppression of any departure from the existing way of life. It doesnot even draw the line at forced labour. Accordingly, some of its work on the Longfield estate was done by participants on the Future Jobs Fund, one of many government schemes that have sought to cajole and coerce the unemployed into wage slavery and trumpet the message to all everyone else that there is no escape anywhere from working for the economy. Even worse, according to Incredible Edible: “Another group that has been invaluable in our work are the people on Community Payback.” (Community Payback is a part of the criminal injustice system that attempts to humiliatethose who break the state’s self-serving rules by compelling them to perform unpaid and demanding work in public.) Admittedly, Incredible Edible is not first local food project that has used forced labour. Some years ago an experimental garden was created and maintained in this way. It too sought to develop medicinal herbs and sustainable forms of local production that would lessen dependence on imported foods. It was part of the concentration camp at Dachau.
If this was not grotesque enough, the group also proudly proclaims that Prince Charles is one of its “biggest supporters.” Since the English Civil War, at the latest, the rejection of the privileges of royalty and the ideological impostures that seek to justify them has been an elementary part of any genuinely critical thought and practice. But it is wholly beyond Incredible Edible. Instead, we find Mary Clear, one of the founding members of the group, giddily delighted that Prince Charles condescended to spend a little time talking and walking with her and a few others during a visit to Todmorden. Her superstitious abjection before a royal aura that exists only in her credulous imagination is purely and simply disgusting.
The benefits of Incredible Edible’s institutional turn have been derisory at best and pernicious at worst. The local authority has launched a scheme to make some land available for growing food, to no obvious effect. Elsewhere, a few schools and a residential care home now use a little more local food than before, and the schools have added a few food-related items to the margins of their indoctrination of the town’s children. There is also Incredible Farm in Walsden, a not-for-profit company that focusses on education, and Incredible Aqua Garden, a recently-established aquaponics hydroponics centre. Even when both are fully operation, they too will merely produce a tiny amount of food plus a few certified technicians destined to plough the blinkered furrows of their narrow specialisms in one or another branch of what bureaucrats call the “land-based sector.” The town’s food supply will remain in the hands of its supermarkets, and capitalism’s degradation of the ecological bases of life on earth will continue unabated. Needless to say, power will stay exactly where it has always been: out of the people’s hands.
The group also obtained grants amounting to some £50,000 to create the Green Route, a short walk around the centre of Todmorden dedicated to the theme of bees, butterflies and other threatened pollinators. Incredible Edible proclaimed that it would serve as “a stunning addition to our town centre that would strengthen our increasingly distinctive identity; a valuable educational resource; a way of increasing footfall for our local businesses; and, of course, all of it would boost our chances of having a bigger, healthier population of bees, butterflies and other pollinators.” It seems never to have been well used or even noticed, and in the less than three years that it has been open, parts of it have already decayed away. No doubt a few tourists still shuffle around it from time to time in the same inattentive way as tourists do everything else. But what effect has the route had on the factors that are thought to be responsible for the decline in bee populations, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, agrochemicals, pathogens and climate change, or the economic powers that bring such suicidal conditions about? Absolutely none. Indeed, the vast discrepancy between what is required and what the route delivers suggests that itwas never seriously intended to serve as a practical remedy for the decline of pollinators. All it has really done is to produce further publicity for the group and a record of apparent success that will help it to secure more grants for more useless gestures. As Joseph Weber noted: “In capitalist society all institutions have the tendency to render themselves autonomous, i.e. to alienate themselves from their original aim and to become an end in themselves in the hands of those administering them” (The Great Utopia, 1950).
Beyond these particular failures, Incredible Edible’s practical programme has only frustrated the emergence of the practical dialogue and the new ways of living and taking control at which it ultimately aims. In the reigning society, control has been taken by hierarchical power, discussion reduced to inconsequential chatter, and life monopolized by the production and consumption of commodities. The ends that Incredible Edible’s proclaim require the negation of these existing social relations and habits. The group, however, has taken precisely the opposite course. Whether it appears to the public as sellers, teachers, entertainers, media images, or auxiliaries to the authorities, it is always the existing social relations that are reproduced. The consequences are fatal. Its unilateral communication merely cultivates the passivity of the spectator and the subordinate; and its commerce first and foremost consists of impoverished acts of dismal exchange. No matter how many people the group reaches, it never brings them together as active and equal participants in practical discussion and real social change. A few officials and professionals import a selection of ideas into their specialized practices, and a small number of activists are inspired to found equally-unsuccessful groups are in other areas. The rest remain in the inert and quiescent position that it is the allotted place for ordinary people in this society. When they encounter Incredible Edible, they buy, they watch, they listen and they chat. They then return to the isolated subservience to the world-as-it-exists that they never really left.
The fact that Incredible Edible has started with small and inadequate steps is not in itself contemptible, for every movement of opposition begins this way. However, unless a movement continually recognizes, confronts and supersedes its own contradictions and the comfortable coexistences it has fallen into with the very society it purports to challenge, it will, sooner or later, succumb to stagnation or a disarming co-optation by the powers-that-be. Unfortunately, Incredible Edible’s basic philosophy only prevents it from developing a more adequate refusal of the social forces responsible for the ecological conditions to which it is reacting. In particular, Incredible Edible considers that “there are three key elements that must work together if a place is to thrive,” these being community, learning and business. This is inherently self-contradictory. Modern business depends upon hierarchical power, alienated labour, and self-justifying mystification. It also proceeds by reducing social relations to the mere exchange of equivalents. All this is the death of learning and community. A collection of workers, consumers and voters who happen to live in the same place is a community in only the barest sense of the word. More to the point, it is sheer absurdity to promote business as an antidote to global ecological devastation. Incredible Edible values actions over words. Quite right. So what is the practical truth of capitalism? Over the last several decades it has undermined the ecological foundations of life on Earth and failed to take any effective response to the undeniable evidence that its course is having calamitous effects and is fast approaching the point of no return. It is pointless to enter into abstract debates whether or not this is, in abstract principle, an inherent feature of capitalism. Words and theories are irrelevant. Capitalism has ravaged the planet, and continues to do so without pause. It must be judged by its deeds; and the only fit and proper sentence for the murder it is committing on life as a whole is one of death. Unless and until Incredible Edible opens itself to this insight by repudiating its fatal embrace of business, it will keep kissing its own assassin.
Not surprisingly, a group that includes amongst its leading members an unrepentant former leader of Calderdale council (Pam Warhurst) regards the state authority that has dispossessed the residents of Calderdale of effective power over their localities as another untouchable fact of life. According to them, the council possesses a democratic mandate and “visionary […] executives” that can assist in creating “a really supportive framework for communities to be stronger, kinder and more resilient.” In reality, Incredible Edible’s dalliance with Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council has been wholly fatal to the emergence of communities that are more than official fictions and any new ways of living. The group’s initial tactic of cultivating unused land without the permission of the owner was a small but promising repudiation of the state-maintained regime of private property that has, in Britain, put 69% of the land in the hands of 0.3% of the population. However, Incredible Edible quickly tried to bring in the local authority, pleading with it to create a register of all the assets it holds across Todmorden and issue licences to grow food on council property. At length the council launched a scheme to “build on the success of Incredible Edible Todmorden by encouraging people to get involved in growing their own food.” Instead of finding and taking for yourself the land you are to cultivate, the scheme imposes on you a “Neighbourhood Co-ordinator” with whom you must meet and identify useable land. The Co-ordinator then instructs a council team to determine for you whether the land is suitable for your project. Finally, you apply for permission from the council to pursue your project, in the form of a licence. You end up just another tenant. Every stage of this imposed process of bureaucratic administration suppresses individual and collective autonomy, which is the very basis of real community. At the same time, it encourages and obliges people to limit their aspirations to the scraps of land that the council is prepared to release from its own holdings, which amount to a tiny proportion of the total land in and around the town. In this way, the dangerous children of unauthorized growing have been strangled at birth and their bodies buried deep.
Incredible Edible’s dependence on local powers likewise encourages it to stay meek, timid and inconsequential. For example, now that Incredible Farm occupies a one-acre site in Walsden provided by Peter Rigg, who runs the nearby Gordon Rigg Garden Centre, Warhurst and Dobson duly eulogize Gordon Rigg (the founder of the garden centre) as a “courageous and visionary” figure who was “one of those quietly determined people who seem to flourish in this area” and the commendable employer of 180 people. Despite Warhurst and Dobson’s suggestion that “adopting more sustainable lifestyles” is a matter of “urgency,” there is not a word about the centre’s habit of importing plants and household junk from far afield. Also, although Warhurst and Dobson had earlier noted that, in existing society, individuals are “just another tool for making profit, undervalued, unappreciated and ultimately disposable,” they refrain from drawing the obvious inference that Rigg realized his vision precisely by ‘quietly’ and ‘determinedly’ depriving the 180 people he employed of the capacity to realize theirs. He may have flourished, but they were required to squander their time and energy (and other irreplaceable resources) on the miserable stupidity of exchanging one stranger’s objects for other strangers’ money.
A similar mercenary reticence seems evident in the group relationship with Todmorden Group Practice. If, as Warhurst and Dobson suggest, the Group Practice is dominated by the pharmaceutical industry, presumably to the detriment of the health care it provides, surely it is necessary and desirable to break that domination. However, Incredible Edible takes no practical steps at all to publicise or counter the actual ways in which the Practice destructively relies on the pharmaceutical industry’s ideas and products. Having been granted a space by the Group Practice in which it can maintain a herb garden, it contents itself with projecting unnoticed symbolic ‘reminders’ from behind the garden’s fence and humbly dreaming of someday being granted permission to install small (and predictably useless) displays within the Practice itself. But what has happened to Incredible Edible’s guiding principle, “action not words”? In practice, this notion has only ever been a means of myopically focussing the group on the small things that can be accomplished within the unchanged confines of the existing society. It is easily cast aside when empty words are better ways to meagre ends.
Although Todmorden has a reputation as a working class town, nearly 30% of its population are professionals, managers, directors and senior officials. Incredible Edible is a typical expression of the forms of social protest and change favoured by these classes. Having servilely crawled on their hands and knees for decade after decade to get to the top of the existing society, they unquestioningly accept the fundamental components of that society as if they are part of the very fabric of the universe. They are familiar and comfortable with business, bureaucracy and government. They love order, prestige, respectability, cheerful appearances, fearless questioning of the inessential, and futile rearrangements and refurbishments disguised as change. At the same time, they detest disruption, refusal, honesty about the miseries of daily life, and any ways of thinking, feeling or acting that step beyond what is, at present, considered normal. Nothing can be expected from these eunuchs of the court of capitalism unless and until they treat with appropriate practical scorn both their petty powers and privileges and the servile tastes and habits with which they have been so disastrously bought. It is simply a brute fact that the only effective remedy for the appalling state of our individual everyday lives and the social and natural worlds within which they enfold is the revolutionary abolition of hierarchical power and capitalism, a taking back of the powers that the economy and the state have taken from us and turned into a lethal engine of delusion and destruction that races away above and beyond our reach. Timid souls who are bold only in doing what a suicidal society requires them to do can bring nothing to this process except obstacles, confusion and the dead hand of the past. It is time definitively to discard their ideas, their means, and their ends. They are all demonstratively useless for any purpose other than the preservation of the alienation we now have to end.
Any effective response to climate change and other ecological calamities requires a bolder and far vaster subversion of the society that produces these ills than Incredible Edible is able to contemplate. In the first instance, it requires us to bring an end to the decades-long misadventure in which we have misguidedly attempted to find fulfilment and contentment through a complete capitulation to capitalism. Not only has this prostration allowed the poisoning of the planet to accelerate, it has also reduced our individual daily lives to an appalling mediocrity. Abjection has merely made us smaller and more contemptible.
A revolt on this scale is undoubtedly difficult to conceive and begin. Perhaps we might draw some inspiration here from the history of West Yorkshire itself.
In the 1830s there was widespread opposition in Todmorden to the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a law that required the poor who would previously have been supported by cash payments to be incarcerated in deliberately oppressive workhouses instead. On 16 November 1838 auctioneers attempting to sell goods seized from officials who had refused to comply with the Act were jeered, jostled, pelted with mud and cow shit, and had their clothes torn. Two police officers on their way to seize more goods were also intercepted by a crowd of one to two thousand workers. The officers were stoned, stripped and put to flight. A house in which they sought refuge was then attacked and one of the officers stabbed. On 23 November 1838 the property and homes of officials and supporters of the new law were widely attacked and damaged. Having been reminded of their personal liability for their actions, officials prudently discontinued their efforts to inflict workhouses on Todmorden.
In 1842, a rolling wave of strikes was triggered by a dispute at Bayley's cotton mill in Stalybridge. On 11 August 1842 a procession of strikers approached Todmorden from Littleborough and Bacup, disabling mills and bringing out their employees along the way. Strikers from Todmorden joined the march. After passing through Cragg Vale and Mytholmroyd, and shutting the mills there, the strikers walked to Halifax. They now numbered some 25,000, many of whom were armed, with perhaps 10,000 being from Todmorden alone. To prevent them proceeding, the Riot Act was read but this was scorned. Soldiers also attacked the workers. Despite several skirmishes, however, all the mills in the town were closed down. The next day the workers ambushed soldiers at Setterhebble Hill and in Elland Wood. Outside Ackroyd’s Mill, however, they were caught exposed and unprepared by the state’s uniformed murderers. Sabre cuts and gunshot killed six strikers and wounded dozens more. The rest avoided detention and returned home.
Thirteen miles away, in 1812, the town of Huddersfield had seen the rise of the Luddites, a movement of workers that sought to destroy the new industrial machinery that threatened to reduce them to the slaves of inhuman profit and machinery and shatter their minds, their bodies and their skills. Loom-breaking and attacks on mills began in February 1812. After two Luddites were killed in an unsuccessful attack on a mill in Liversage, tempers rose and warning shots and assassination attempts were directed at the masters and their creatures. One mill owner who had introduced the automated tyranny that would soon reduce the life expectancy of workers to a mere 22 years had his own life likewise abridged by an armed ambush. The home of a constable who had “made himself obnoxious by the vigilant discharge of his duty” was also burned to the ground, and abortive armed uprisings attempted in 1817 and 1820. At length, Huddersfield, which by then rejoiced in the glorious unofficial title of “The Metropolis of Discontent”, came to be occupied by over a thousand troops, who imposed a veritable martial law. This military intervention in support of the interests of capitalism was to no avail. Instead, the oppressors were circumvented and spat at, and on one occasion a soldier’s wedding party was disrupted by residents disinclined to let their enemies revel with impunity. It was only when the state arranged for its laws and its courts to more-or-less indiscriminately murder 17 men that the insurgency lost courage and faded away.
This is not to say that these past resistances are models blindly to be followed. They were all ultimately failures, in the sense that they never, over time, found a way to the abolition of alienated society. Moreover, we who live in the wake of their failures have to confront the enemies of our time and the ways in which we lose and betray ourselves today. Our repertoires of refusal and revolution must be drawn from the whole array of usable thoughts and actions, new and old, that are available to us now, and the litmus test is whether they serve in practice to undermine the particular alienations from which we suffer in our own place and time. However, what we can taste and take from our forerunners is their spirit, the boldness with which they saw and treated capitalism and the state as enemies. They did not go far enough; but they can and should inspire us to go further.
Perhaps we might also turn the dominant society’s own abuse of the past to our own advantage. For some time we have been bombarded with images and tales of the two world wars. The purpose of this deluge is to lead us to identify with the real domination of the state and the fake community of the nation. But let us suborn our powers of fantasy to better ends. Imagine, if you will, that Britain was defeated in the world war of your choice and came to be occupied by an enemy power. This cunning power proposes to use the nation for its own ends. It knows that the best way to bring this about is to use naked violence as little as possible and to instead convince the native population that its imposed rule is natural and beneficial. Accordingly, every institution and authority in the land is occupied by its agents; and every one of those agents uses its power and resources in the enemy’s interests at the same time as it tries to persuade the local population to accept and collaborate in this process. Media, laws, morals, education, ideas, fashions, advertising, culture, entertainments, images of the good life, in fact absolutely everything that the society says and does seeks only to make the population into quiescent accomplices of the enemy. In these circumstances, how would you go about resisting this occupation? How would you reach out to others and form clandestine networks of communication and collaboration? How would you begin to undermine the occupiers’ propaganda, sabotage their operations across the whole of society, and prepare the ground work for an uprising that will oust them? This is not an exercise in mere whimsy, for the scenario is very much the position in which we actually find ourselves today. Of course, there is no purely foreign enemy. There is also, thank goodness, no army or government in exile standing by to oust our enemies for us, and then impose their own ascendency in the name of liberation. All the same, the state, the economy and the apparatus of lying appearances that justifies their existence are external and occupying powers; and they are powers from which we can and must free ourselves. So, why not put aside the pettiness of sport and other authorized pastimes and play a grander game? Use your imagination, and make your imaginings reality.
Even in these darkest of times, we can also find inspiration in the present. In July 2014, Trevor Lewis, an employee at the Eastwood waste recycling plant that serves Todmorden, used a digger to destroy the facility. Like any other honest man, woman and child, he “hated his job” and knew that “his work place destroyed him” (Todmorden News, 2 October 2014, page 1). His sublime blow against alienated labour, that daily horror in which we lose ourselves and create a bad world not of our choosing,deserves to be celebrated, refined and extended. Of course, his act of self-defence was a crime and disrupted one of the pseudo-participatory farces that allows the dominant society and us to pretend that we are doing something about the burgeoning environmental apocalypse. So be it. If we are to pick ourselves off the ground on which we are crawling, if we are to cultivate a spirit capable of creating a new and sane society by and for ourselves, we must set at naught both the laws that politicians have put in our way and the expected course of normal life. We have nothing to lose but padded chains, decapitated dawns and pale pleasures in small corners. We still have a world to win.
Let the true games begin. No bird soars too high, if it soars with its own wings.
No copyright: reproduce or use as you please.
These quotations (and much of the other information on which this text is based) are from Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson’s 2014 book, Incredible! Plant Veg and Grow a Revolution. Warhurst is a founder member and leading light of Incredible Edible.
For additional details of these movements, see John Fielden’s Todmorden: Popular Culture and Radical Politics in a Cotton Town c.1817-1850 by Linda Croft (Todmorden: Tygerfoot Press, 1994); Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis by Catherine Howe (London: Breviary Stuff Publications, 2014); and Liberty or Death: Radicals, Republicans and Luddites1793 to 1823 by Alan Brooke and Lesley Kipling (Huddersfield: Huddersfield Local History Society, 2012), amongst others.