On Shortages. 8 Lessons from Another Life.
The past two years and a half since the UK referendum in June 2016 have been a never-ending source of “triggering” events. More precisely, I refer to how the UK government’s actions and their relentless drive to concentrate all the power in their hands took me back again and again to the (post-)communist Romania. That’s harsh you would say. UK cannot be more different. It is true, however the methods of the current government are eerily similar. It feels like they are executing from the same book. Even scarier, I see how the same methods lead to the same reaction in people.
After writing about these parallels here and here and here, I promised myself to stop writing. Two events of the past weeks made me change my mind and I decided to write again on a “translation” in authoritarian terms of what I see now in UK.
First, one of my responses to a tweet went madly viral. Like 300k views viral.
The second, is Theresa May explaining us how she would push aside the mould in order to eat the jam underneath, as a suggestion probably that she “does austerity” too.
I decided after this to write something about how food shortages work. Why?
First, the reactions to my tweet about the vandalism of Marx grave in Hampstead cemetery were split in broadly two categories. There were broadly two camps: one situated more of the extreme right who “liked” and re-tweeted my response and one situated very much to the left who were disagreeing with it. I profoundly dislike both camps. Extreme-right confiscates our lived experience under communism to justify their radical ideological positioning while many who declare themselves nowadays communists or socialists have no knowledge or curiosity about how fifty years of socialism played out. The death of millions is typically dismissed as a footnote by some and assumed and misused by others to advocate just another extremist ideology.
My experience living in communism did not make me be extreme right. My living in communism made me however be very aware of extremes of all flavours and also of the fact that their mechanisms and ideologies are more similar than different. Intolerance, “othering”, cliques, asset stripping, political and economic control in the same hands, corruption.
Therefore, here I stand to tell you from my lived experience, how shortages of food in countries which should not have such problems, are engineered on purpose, for mass control.
Secondly, May reaction showed me if anything that she does not know what food shortage is. It is not that among lots of other food at home you also forgot that you have a jar of jam which in the meantime developed mould. It rather means that you know precisely all what you have at home and you are rigorously planning how to somehow produce breakfast, lunch and dinner out of nothing. It means that if you open a jar of jam, it will be consumed a bit every day and the mould thing does not even happen.
So, after this rather long introduction, here are a few points I would like you to know:
1. Food shortages will consume your ‘free” time.
A typical one-hour weekly trip to the local supermarket may transform in more trips or more time spent there. In the eighties in Romania, you could easily spend 5h Saturday morning in a queue for 1l of milk. UK will not get there. However, sourcing the food you need when it is not available as you expect, will take time.
2. Food shortages will not lead to you losing weight.
One of the most common reactions I’ve heard in UK following the announcement of food shortages after 29th of March is “that’s good, I will lose weight.” I have to disappoint you, but this is not how it works. There will be food but random. Not necessarily what you wish when you want to lose weight. The unreliability of food supply leads to disorderly eating and often people are fatter than they otherwise would be.
3. Food shortages will lead to you forgetting how to do your favourite recipes.
When I was 14, I wanted to join my brother and a group friends on a hiking trip. My mum told me that as I cannot take care of myself or others yet, I cannot go. However, if I cook every day that summer, I can go next year. Such was my will to go that I accepted the challenge.
To my huge surprise I have discovered that cooking by the old books was impossible. There was not chance to have all the ingredients you were meant to have for a dish. Everything was an approximation of the highest order. I invented many recipes, at times making my family ill in the process. A pizza on which I could put only onions out of all the listed ingredients, is a memorable joke in the family.
4. Food shortages will reveal some ugly human behaviours.
As an adult, I met at times in the working environment all over Europe, people who made me tell myself: “I am glad I did not meet this person in the communist Romania”. What this means? What did I fear? There are people out there, and I am sure everybody has met some, which have an unstoppable desire to control people and situations. When you meet them in organisations, they can create a toxic environment and they can quite often raise to the top. However, you are essentially free to move, and their influence is anyway somehow contained by organisational rules.
When such people find themselves in situations where their power over others is bigger and the control is closer to the bone by affecting the basic human needs of others (food, shelter, etc.) these people can be real monsters. In my view, such people and the potential for harm exists in very culture and we should be wary of it.
5. Food shortages will happen gradually.
As a child I asked grandma many times to tell me how things were before, trying to piece together a “normal” country out of her words. In the seventies, she said, I noticed first that olives were hard to find. Then “rocky sugar”. I was puzzled. I could probably see these items once every few years. Do you mean, before they were in the shop every day? Unconceivable to my child mind. This is how it starts. Not with everyday items.
6. Food shortages are humiliating.
I remember clearly the feeling of going out of the shop after hour of queuing. My long braids undone in the physical hustle that these queues developed into. If it was milk, oranges, meat or bread, I felt angry and humiliated and I wanted to throw away the bag with whatever I bought. You don’t have to go through such experiences and hopefully your kids should not either. I can guarantee you that even staying in an orderly queue for food is humiliating.
7. Food shortages are not an equalizer.
You would think that everybody would have the same memory of long periods of food shortage. This cannot be further from the truth. Black markets of various sorts develop as well as networks of people who would have privileged access to things. If you are not part of those networks, you are fully exposed.
My memory of empty shelves in the shops is not shared by many because their fridges were full of food which was procured through alternative networks, we were not part of. My parents were engineers, relocated for work in a part of the country we had not family in and they were not part of the communist structures either. We were literally outside the black market for food.
8. Food shortages are engineered.
I now know that Romania should have never had food shortages given its land and the climate. My dad can now have, from two pots on the balcony, tomatoes for the whole summer while in my garden in London I can barely have three tomatoes in September. The control of food was intentional as one of many means of control of the population and a very effective one. The shortages started slowly and in time they became more varied and ridiculous. In the late eighties, it was common to cut electricity every day for a few hours in in the winter. Then there was no petrol. The list was endless.
What this has to do with what are we about to experience if no 29th of March we fall out of the cliff? You will see queues, you’ll waste your time on things you didn’t before, you’ll see ugly behaviours where you least expect and essentially, you’ll have less time to keep the politicians in check. Many will say that all is the fault of EU and or the immigrants and the othering will continue for a while. It will be one of the means of control , to keep people busy while massive asset striping will happen in the legal vacuum created intentionally through the “No Deal”.