Thursday, October 17, 2019

Asking for food

There is plenty of evidence of the way the business mentality has permeated every level of society since the recrudescence of market liberalism 35 years ago. You only need to think of how citizens in need of help from their government, their state, their country, are now routinely described as customers, clients or consumers. Business-speak has infiltrated ordinary language in many other ways, not least through the tendency to define everything in terms of price or market value, or of increase and decrease, as if everything from the sale of cabbages to complex emotional conditions could be ascribed a numerical rating. But it can be more subtle than that. Every time I hear of a rise in ‘demand’ for food parcels from places like city missions I wonder if those using the term realize the extent to which even something like hungry people’s need for food has been expressed as if it were a market transaction.

Asking for food is demeaning and time consuming and so should be viewed as an act of last resort.’ That’s Susan St John in a recent Newsroom post, and she’s absolutely right. If you’re a well-fed comfortable middle-class person reading this, imagine having to go and ask for food from a city mission and it shouldn’t be hard to grasp how deeply humiliating it might feel; it is, as Susan says, something you would only do as a last resort. In effect, it’s a public admission of private failure, even if the failure is not your fault. Yet her comment follows a sentence in which she says, I am sure unwittingly, that food banks around the country ‘report higher demand.’ The image conveyed, as it is in a hundred news reports using the same phrase, is of people stepping up decisively and demanding, insisting as of right, that food be handed over to them; the sense is of some pressure being applied, as if the citadels of the well-off were being stormed by the ungrateful masses. The word of course comes from the concept of ‘supply and demand,’ but how grotesque that it should be applied to this kind of situation. I have never queued for food at a foodbank or city mission but I cannot believe that the people doing so are demanding parcels; asking, yes, hoping, waiting, even expecting, but not demanding.

The last thing I want to do is criticize Susan St John, who has done far more for this country than I ever have; I just cite the example to show how deeply market-speak has penetrated into everyday discourse, even when, if you stop to think about it, its use in that context is so inappropriate as to be obscene. In a very narrow sense you might argue that food parcels are supplied as a result of ‘demand’ but if we free our minds from the stifling grip of such thinking, we might allow ourselves to believe that some things can be given and received out of nothing more natural or unquantifiable than human kindness and human need.