In March 2017, the German peasant foundation “Haus der Bauern” organized a noteworthy international congress, named “Global Peasants’ Rights”, in Schwäbisch Hall in Southwest Germany. During the four-day conference, the participants—mostly small-scale farmers of various kinds and from various regions worldwide, as well as NGO-representatives, politicians, and scientists—developed a much-noted UN-declaration on the fundamental rights for peasants1
. The objective of this charter, named the “Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas”, is to protect peasants (and associated groups) from poverty, malnutrition, marginalization, expropriation and, in general, from a weakening of their sovereignty, which is, according to their view, seriously threatened by multinational corporations and state power. In doing so, the declaration redefines existing human rights, such as the right to the freedom of thought and opinion, according to the realities of peasant communities. Moreover, it also positions new rights on the global political agenda, most importantly the right to food sovereignty (FS)—a truly transformative claim that was developed and disseminated during the last 25 years by the transnational peasant movement La Vía Campesina.
The congress in Schwäbisch Hall is thus not a singular event, neither is it focused on German or European peasants’ interests alone. It is rather embedded within two antagonist but yet interrelated trajectories in relation to the production, consumption and distribution of food on the global scale. On the one hand, we witness the consolidation of a ‘corporate food regime’ that builds on a capitalist world economy and which goes along with an industrialized corporate agriculture, with an undermining of small-scale agriculture as well as with multiple environmental and social crises (Brand and Wissen 2017
; McMichael 2009a
; McMichael 2014
). On the other hand, both in the Global North and South, grassroots movements, such as small scale farmers, consumer movements and indigenous peoples rally around the claim for FS and call for the just distribution of food, land and resources, for cultural recognition, as well for the political representation of their identities (Andrée et al. 2014
; Desmarais 2007
; Patel 2009
; Wittman 2009
In view of these two trajectories, it certainly would be scientifically relevant to focus on the juridical integration of the charter of Schwäbisch Hall into the global ‘legal infrastructure’ (Hadfield 2017, p. 3
) as well as to analyze the possible formation of new political discourses around food. However, my intentions in this contribution are somewhat different; in drawing on James Tully
) practiced-based notion of ‘diverse citizenship’, as well as on other selected theories of postmodern political thought, I rather want to focus on the contested political nature of the FS movement, specifically with regard to the dynamics and actions that have brought it (and thus the charter of Schwäbisch Hall) into being. In particular, I want to investigate the paradox that, on the one hand, we apparently witness a politically coherent community that declares a new global legal framework for the benefit of the peasantry and which draws on the notion of sovereignty—a concept that is historically inextricably interwoven with the image of the state. On the other hand, however, this community does apparently not rest on a ‘classical’ common foundational ground such as a shared territorial space, a common cultural heritage, a founding myth, or an ethnic identity. In other words, their foundational frame of reference remains rather vague and contingent. In view of this apparent political ‘groundlessness’2
one might therefore ask: What in particular is it that ties these groups together? What has brought them into being? And on what kind of foundational grounding are their claims being built and legitimized?
As a response to these questions, I will argue in this contribution that the ‘foundational backbone’ of the right to food sovereignty (as well as of the political community that struggles for it) derives from and is embedded within political action itself. However, in this case, political action is to a lesser extent understood as symbolic and discursive practices such as campaigning, marching, lobbying and the like (however important these might be); I am rather referring to an amalgam of a high variety of interlinked food practices “through which the peasantry constitutes itself as distinctively different
” (van der Ploeg 2008, p. 265
, emphasis in original), such as agro-ecological cultivation methods, seed saving practices, direct marketing or subsistence farming. This rather unconventional focus on political action, however, also requires examining what it actually means to act politically, i.e., to investigate what, in detail, qualifies political practices as such, in the sense of having transformative agency and the power to change societal orders. I will therefore draw on insights from political theory and social theory and show how far political practices may contribute to the forming and the consolidation of a post-national political community of ‘diverse citizens’.
These objectives are motivated by two aspirations. On the one hand, I want to contribute to the literature which seeks to theorize the notion of sovereignty in relation to food (Edelman 2014
; Menser 2014
; Patel 2009
; Trauger 2014
). These insights will thus help us to understand in more detail why the respective movements rest on this universal ideal and how far it contributes to the forming of coherent and powerful post-national political communities. On the other hand, I want to discuss an alternative understanding of political action that is highly compatible with and inspired by Tully’s notion of ‘diverse citizenship’, since it does not take political practices as preexisting categories, but conceptualizes them as contingent, emergent and situational, i.e., as being highly dependent on the questions how, why and in what kind of context they are being exercised.
This contribution is divided into four sections. In the following part I, will put a focus on the recent and intensifying re-politicization of food, which includes the discussion of the origin and the normative contents of the emerging claim for FS as well as related literature on ‘alternative food networks’. In section three, I will discuss selected postmodern theories on sovereignty and justice, which will help to understand why practitioners of and advocates for FS build on these universal concepts and how far they contribute to the forming of a heterogeneous, but yet coherent political community. In section four, I will combine Tully’s notion of ‘diverse citizenship’, with Theodore Schatzki’s practice theory. This combination, I argue, bears great potential for analyzing the emergence and multifaceted democratization processes of transnational grassroots movements, since it not only offers insights into the internal organization of social practices but also into their interconnection and spatial materialization (see also Jonas 2017
). Finally, in section five, I will synthesize my arguments in pointing out certain aspects that will enrich discussions on contemporary food movements, as well as on the changing nature of (environmental) citizenship.
3. Sovereignty and the Politics of Representation
As noted above, the idea of FS seems paradoxical, since, on the one hand, it discursively draws on the idea of sovereignty as a guiding principle for their political action, and, on the other hand, it displaces the state or any other territorial entity, which could serve as a foundational and material basis for its normative principles. Therefore, it is useful to approach sovereignty in a first step from a postmodern perspective, in order to deconstruct its meaning as ‘highest and absolute authority’. However, since the idea of sovereignty does not answer the question as to why most heterogeneous movements unite to a politically coherent community, it makes sense, in a second step, to engage with the normative dimension of ‘the political’, i.e., with a theory of justice.
3.1. Approaching Sovereignty from a Postmodern Perspective
Historically, the idea of sovereignty, i.e., the idea of paramount and untouchable authority, is inextricably bound to the idea of the nation-state (Skinner 2010
). However, in the course of the processes and dynamics of globalization, it has become obvious that the image of the state as the only and unchallenged bearer of sovereignty has eroded (Fraser 2008
; Agnew 2009
). Interestingly, despite these developments, in political theory and political geography discussion about sovereignty persist (Kalmo and Skinner 2010
; Mountz 2013
). In particular, the influences of postmodern thinking underline the fragmentation and contestability of sovereign power, e.g., in relation to spaces of neoliberalism (Ong 2006
), to US-exceptionalism (Gregory 2006
), or to the politics and geographies of social movements (Nicholls 2007
This fragmented nature of sovereignty is perfectly mirrored in Derrida’s work, who argues that “in politics the choice is not between sovereignty and nonsovereignty, but among several forms of partings, partitions, divisions, conditions that come along to broach a sovereignty” (Derrida  2009, p. 76ff
). In consequence, this means that the idea of sovereignty as the highest authority and unity is neither given nor absolute, but that sovereign power is highly contested, even if it seems untouchable as an inviolable natural law. Similarly, Gratton
) argues that one of the basic features of sovereignty is its fictional character, which essentially rests on histories, narrations and myths, which ‘the sovereign’ tells about itself. This, however, does not mean that sovereign power is not a real force, in the sense of e.g., military or economic power, or that sovereignty is not spatially effective. On the contrary, it is exactly the symbolic, ideological dimension of sovereignty, i.e., its ‘apparition’ (Baranger 2010
), out of which ‘the sovereign’ derives its alleged unquestionability and through which territorial and material manifestations of sovereignty are made possible (Elden 2010
In the light of these approaches it becomes thus clear that the transnational movement for FS—which often legitimizes its claims with the mystification of small-holders and indigenous peoples as the genuine producers of food, and who are willing to feed the worlds’ people (La Vía Campesina 2007
)—essentially uses the ideological dimension of sovereignty as a discursive and strategic tool in order to regain autonomy and control over territory in relation to oppressive forces of both state power and market forces (Trauger 2014
). In this sense, the idea of sovereignty functions as a territorial strategy to obtain maximal self-determination and as a political program for non-state actors that is combined with certain norms and values such as non-interference, inclusiveness, plurality and sustainability (Menser 2014
). As Koskenniemi
(2010, p. 232
) puts it, sovereignty thus becomes “a moral principle, a polemical weapon [and] part of a political vocabulary whose point is not to register aspects of the world but to achieve them: to preserve or change a status quo, to support or oppose particular contestants”.
However, when it comes to the questions as to why most heterogeneous groups unite to post-national political communities, on which commonly shared ‘ground’ they are being founded, and how this idea derives democratic legitimacy, a further engagement with theories of sovereignty does not seem helpful. What rather might seem of worth here is an engagement with a normative theory of ‘the political’, i.e., a theory of justice, which is provided by deliberative political theorist Nancy Fraser.
3.2. Justice and the Politics of Representation
In her work, Fraser focuses on the content, the spatial framing and the legitimacy of justice, which she conceptualizes as a three-dimensional theory of analytically distinct but inseparably interlinked spheres of economic redistribution, cultural recognition and political representation (see, in particular, Fraser 2005
; Fraser 2008
). I will not discuss the first two dimensions of justice in detail here (however important they are), since it would extend the scope of this contribution. Rather, for my purposes, the last sphere, the dimension of political representation, seems to be of particular interest, since it is closely connected to the question of citizenship, i.e., of belonging to a democratically legitimized (and itself legitimizing) political community.
According to Fraser, the politics of representation refers not only to seeking a remedy to the ‘ordinary’ constellations of misrepresentation which occur, e.g., in cases of malfunctioning electoral systems; it also refers to cases in which certain people or groups are excluded at all times from the possibility of raising their voice, of acting and participating as peers in a clearly defined political community. Accordingly, Fraser
(2005, p. 15ff
) speaks in these cases of ‘meta-political injustices’, since globalization has engendered a variety of structures and forces that lead to certain forms of suppression and marginalization and which cannot be traced back to the framing of the nation-state. In these cases, Fraser argues, “globalization is driving a widening wedge between state territoriality and social effectivity” (ibid., p. 14), which means that, in times of globalization, emancipatory forces neither address their claims to the state, nor do they negotiate and practice their claims exclusively on the local scale; they rather seek and create new post-national democratic fora and spaces, such as La Vía Campesina gatherings—as it was the case in Schwäbisch Hall—or the World Social Forum, in order to make their agency visible and to addresses their particular claims to the trans- and international political sphere.
However, if it is neither the state nor any other economical or cultural category, such as class, gender or ethnicity, that “turns a collection of people into fellow subjects of justice” (ibid., p. 13ff), the question still remains to what principle these emancipatory movements refer, in order to recognize themselves as legitimate subjects of justice. In view of this question, Fraser suggests orientating the legitimacy of transnational justice claims towards the principle of ‘all-affectedness’, which points to the idea that political decisions, institutions and structures are only legitimate, if those who are affected by them have a fair and equal chance to participate in their formation. Therewith, this principle holds that the establishment of a public opinion that might influence political decisions (e.g., about food and agrarian policies) is only legitimate, if it has been developed within a freely accessible political space and a communicative process, within which affected groups can participate as peers, regardless of their cultural or ethnic identity, class membership or nationality. In doing so, the ‘all-affected principle’ serves as Barnett
(2012, p. 682
) argues, as “an animating political intuition, as a worldly normative force, creating political claims and counter-claims”. Therefore, although the ‘all-affected principle’ does not explain how diverse groups are being differentially affected by the corporate food regime—admittedly one of the weaknesses of the idea—it morally legitimizes and animates the struggles for FS and unites diverse groups into a coherent political emancipatory community of post-national citizens.
Exactly this kind of transnational emancipatory politics is being enacted by practitioners and advocates of FS. As, for example, Wittman
) shows, peasants that unite around the idea of FS, essentially build on an enhancement as well as on a deepening of their political representation in global political struggles around food. However, they do not only do so in the form of increasing their public visibility, in terms of attending, e.g., the World Social Forum or UN-conferences; they rather do so in practically reworking the disrupted human–nature relationship, i.e., in the form of multifaceted agro-ecological practices or seed saving initiatives. Thus, the foundational ‘ground’ of the claim for FS, cannot be explaining by applying the ‘all-affected-principle’ alone. Beyond that, as I will argue in the next section, a focus on the practical dimension of ‘the political’ is of utmost importance.
5. Conclusions: Food Sovereignty as ‘Diverse Citizenship’
Looking back at the congress in Schwäbisch Hall, while keeping in mind the theoretical elaborations of this contribution, reveals some valuable new insights. As noted in the introduction, the aim of this contribution was to focus in more detail on the contested political nature of food sovereignty as well as to discuss the dynamics and the actions that have brought it into being. In particular, I wanted to investigate the paradox that on the one hand, there exists a politically coherent community that declares a new legal framework, while on the other, there is obviously no common foundational ground, such as a shared territorial space, a founding myth or a common cultural frame of reference that ties these groups together. Therefore, my guiding questions were oriented towards the problematic of finding this foundational ‘ground’ as well asking the question of the legitimization of the respective claims. Furthermore, I wanted to discuss an alternative understanding of political action, which conceives of political practices not as pre-given categories but as a situational and emergent phenomena that are closely connected to the quotidian practices of social life. Therefore, I want to point out in the following some aspects that provide answers to these questions and which make it possible to understand why the movement for FS may be framed as a post-national community of ‘diverse citizens’.
As discussed above, the FS movement shows very clearly in how far multifaceted post-national democratization processes emerge ‘glocally’ at multiple social sites, such as local sites of food production, processing and distribution, as well as (e.g., in the case in Schwäbisch Hall) congresses and events with a far-reaching and global impact. Therewith, according to Tully
(2014, p. 33ff
), these post-national spaces of ‘diverse citizenship’ are not being built on the basis of legal norms and an institutionalized status
, in the sense of ‘modern citizenship’. They rather have to be understood as the result of a high variety of multi-faceted political practices, of people acting together ‘in concert’. In this regard, it is most remarkable—and the example of FS shows this aspect very clearly—that these practices, e.g., agro-ecological farming or saving seed, do not necessarily share the characteristics of conventional political practices such as lobbying, marching or negotiating; instead, they rather reveal their political and transformative character upon the second glance. To be more precise, and using Schatzki’s terminology, on the one hand, they are organized by, e.g., the ‘teleo-affective structure’ of, e.g., ‘making a living’ or of ‘just surviving’ (consuming and producing food, or selling it), and on the other hand they also may reveal the ‘teleo-affective structure’ of ‘acting otherwise’, i.e., of transforming societal orders and of pointing to certain social grievances, as is the case in several agro-ecological projects or community supported agriculture initiatives.
Thus, these kinds of practices reveal a dual nature; they are simultaneously social and
political, in the sense of aiming in a self-referential manner, i.e., in virtue of their actual exercise, at modifying their own rules. Therefore, they are characterized to a high extent by reflexivity
, in the sense that they point to certain ‘worldly’ aspects of public life and social orders, which is, as I argue, one of the most important and constitutive features of political practices (see also Fladvad and Glöckler forthcoming
). Furthermore, these kind of practices, which Tully
) would label as ‘practices of freedom’ or as practices of ‘thinking and acting differently’, represent the ‘foundational backbone’ of the claim for FS. In so doing, they fill the rather vague idea of FS with a concrete meaning and practical substance. Or, to put it differently, the FS discourse (and thus events and congresses such as the one in Schwäbisch Hall) does not emerge out of words or ideas, but originates from manifold practices of ‘acting otherwise’, “through which the peasantry constitutes itself as distinctively different
” (van der Ploeg 2008, p. 265
, emphasis in original).
However, the congress in Schwäbisch Hall, as well as the mentioned charter on the “Rights of Peasants”, show that ‘diverse citizens’ do not necessarily avoid the conventional institutions of cosmopolitan democracy, in this case the legal system of the UN. At first glance, this might seem contrary to Tully’s argument that ‘diverse citizens’ are constituted in virtue of their very own civic activities, and not on the basis of the institutions of cosmopolitan democracy. However, at second glance this strategy is not a contradiction to ‘diverse citizenship’. In fact, ‘diverse citizens’ indeed address their particular claims to the transnational political sphere via conventional political practices such as negotiations, lobbying and the declaring of new legal frameworks, as experienced in Schwäbisch Hall. In doing so, they use existing institutions as strategical means to avoid assimilation and marginalization and in order to be recognized as legitimate political subjects within the wider public realm. In this regard, it is crucial to note that they do not accept the existing rules of the prevailing legal system, but rather introduce new or modified rules into the ‘political game’. Nevertheless, this is a subordinate step, or as Tully puts it: “Civic activities […] can be more or less institutionalized and rationalized (in countless forms), but this is secondary. The primary thing is the concrete games of citizenship and the ways they are played” (Tully 2014, p. 35
, emphasis in original). Thereby—and the congress in Schwäbisch Hall shows this aspect very clearly—‘diverse citizens’ actively create their own situational political spaces and disclose certain (local) food practices and rather remote or concealed peasant realities to the global public. Moreover, in virtue of jointly elaborating, authoring and declaring a common legal framework, i.e., of engaging in a freely accessible communicative democratic process, they create an intersubjectively shared sense of self-identification, self-awareness and of belonging to a post-national democratic community.
These processes and manifold practices of ‘citizenization’, however, do not emerge out of ‘thin air’. What essentially ties these practices and actors together is their shared, albeit differential, condition of being affected by the ‘corporate food regime’. This antagonist relationship thereby creates an animating and highly effective political energy and unifying power that transcends social demarcations and distinguishing statuses such as class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, borders or other. That does not mean that these categorizations have lost their relevance or their effectiveness; neither does it mean that internal differences and conflicts among this diverse post-national community are being solved once and for all. Rather, the principle of being affected by the ‘corporate food regime’ reveals its political power in democratically legitimizing their manifold struggles for the legal recognition of peasants’ rights and for FS. However, following Tully’s earlier work (Tully 1999
), it is important to understand this struggle not as an end state or as a struggle that has a final goal, since this would imply that there is an ideal consensus under which all concerns and demands are being met. Rather, the “multiplicity of democratic processes or practices of challenging and negotiating the rules of mutual recognition” (Tully 2000, p. 478
) are neither complete nor part of a universal common good; they rather underlie their groundlessness, their undecidability and a radical openness to the future, since they are embedded in an ongoing and never-ending political struggle between hegemonies and counter-hegemonies (see Mouffe 2007
In view of these considerations, it also becomes clear that, ‘diverse citizenship’ is not necessarily synonymous to the idea of ‘environmental citizenship’ (which also represents a highly contested concept and field of research, see Dobson and Bell 2006
). In particular, the idea of ‘liberal environmental citizenship’ (Bell 2005
)—i.e., individuals, who are amenable to and equipped with certain rights and duties—prioritizes the power of institutions (represented in laws, orders, norms, rights obligations and responsibilities) over practices and not vice versa. Furthermore, ‘liberal environmental citizenship’ prescriptively conceptualizes citizenship as a theoretical ideal of universal and inclusive social fairness and sustainability (Zorell and Yang in this issue), which is not compatible to the rather open idea of ‘diverse citizenship’. However, ‘diverse citizenship’ also does not exclude notions of ‘environmental citizenship’, in particular when the perspective on environmental citizens is practice-based (ibid.), which means that it focuses on the diversity of bodily and prefigurative bottom-up activities.
The communities of ‘diverse citizens’ thus created have, as I have shown, no fixed place in space or territorial borders, neither do they build on a commonly shared founding myth; however, their political strength and their foundation lies in their commonly shared antagonist as well as in their shared orientation to practices of ‘acting otherwise’. Based on these considerations, many new possible questions may be raised. How do different FS-practices connect to each other? In what way do they relate, e.g., to the logics of the market economy, to regulative policies, to conscious and environmentally friendly consumer choices or to the influences of the Degrowth movement? Do political practices necessarily lead to political results, in the sense of having a direct effect on societal orders? Also, the legal dimension is of great relevance. Are new rights, such as those elaborated in Schwäbisch Hall, merely symbols, i.e., talk without substance? Or, do they effectively protect peasants from heteronomy and aggressive market forces? And in what way do they lead to possible new or modified discourses and practices around food? Questions like these can only be investigated empirically, e.g., in the form of multi-sited ethnographies (Hannerz 2003
) and similar approaches. However, theoretical insights from postmodern political thought as well as from social theory, as presented in this contribution, may be of great worth for future research on initiatives and practices of FS as well as on the nature of (environmental) citizenship.