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Cooking the Books 2: Back to the Iron Age?

“They eat food from skips, wear discarded clothes and want to topple capitalism”, wrote Brian O’Connell in an article headed “Masters of free lunch” in the Irish Times  (4 September). He was describing the activities of a group of people who call themselves “freegans” – “a combination of the words free and vegan, whose aim is to live as non-commercially as possible”. They “don’t believe in working for money”, nor in paying for the things they need to live.

Socialists don’t either, but in the context of a society based on the common ownership of the means of life where there’d be no need for money or buying and selling, not as a lifestyle choice within capitalism. No doubt it is theoretically possible to live within capitalism without using money, but to what end? Not even 5 percent of the population (and that’s probably an exaggeration), let alone a majority, could live like that. Not that skip diving for food and other things needed to survive is ever likely to appeal to more than a tiny handful of people.

So, we are talking about an inevitably very marginal activity, and one that depends on most other people working for wages and producing the wealth of society, including the thrown-away products the freegans gather and consume. As everything produced under capitalism is the result of exploitation, they are carrying to its logical extreme the practice of those who refrain from buying certain products on ethical grounds. They see themselves as the ultimate “ethical consumers”, even if they are doing through voluntary choice what a number of others are obliged to do through economic necessity.

But how is such a lifestyle going to “topple capitalism”? We can’t deny that they are against capitalism or what one of them is quoted as calling “a profit-driven commodities economy”. The trouble is that that’s not all they are against. They also denounce “industrialism” and “globalism”. They want to renounce the real and potential benefits of industrial production and go back to living a simple agricultural life with an Iron Age technology but without using animals.

According to O’Connell:

 “Freeganism has its roots in traditional activities such as gleaning, or historical collectives such as the Diggers, a group of agrarian communists who flourished in mid-17th-century England . . . [T]he first official use of the word ‘freegan’ appeared in 2000 and began to gain popularity through a website, Freegan.info, set up in New York by Adam Weissman and Wendy Sher in 2003”.

Hang on a minute! Website? Doesn’t that assume the existence of “industrialism” and in fact a highly developed technology? And is not the internet one of the more prominent aspects of “globalism”?

The freegans are right, however, to want to recreate the social relationships of early human society, which were co-operative and sharing and based on giving and taking rather than buying and selling. Socialists want this too, but we say this can be done without having to renounce the advances in sanitation, medicine and comfort that modern science and technology have brought, including the ability to find ecologically-acceptable techniques of energy generation and industrial production. We want to restore the original common ownership of the Earth’s resources – for the Earth to become, as the Diggers put it, “a common Treasury for All” –  and the social relationships that went with it, while retaining both industrialism and globalism.