J.R. Spanier

PhD Candidate
Environmental Governance

PhD Project
Unmaking the capitalist food system: Rural-urban relations in transition 

conducted as part of the UNMAKING Research Programme
supervisors: Dr Giuseppe Feola, Dr Ellen Moors, Dr Marion Ernwein

Modern capitalism cannot be untied from the interlinked processes of urbanisation and agricultural industrialisation. Capitalism drove the commodification of the countryside and the industrialisation of agricultural production, dispossessing peasants and pushing large shares of the rural population into growing cities. This, by now, planetary capitalist urbanisation of society has severe impacts on our entangled human-more-than-human world. It has been described as the origin and ongoing driver of two interconnected cultural rifts that conceal the material linkages between humans and nature, and between the urban and the rural respectively. The cultural rifts uphold and legitimise the unsustainable dominance of humans over nature – and of the city over the countryside.

This has two important consequences for the UNMAKING programme’s aim to study the unmaking of unsustainable capitalist ways of being and doing. First, the capitalist production of the city and the countryside forms a relevant spatial context in which any initiative aiming at the disruption of capitalist institutions necessarily is embedded. Second, next to the frequently demanded unmaking of the rift between human and nature, the transformation towards socially and ecologically just futures also requires the unmaking of the connected rift between the rural and the urban: The rural-urban rift becomes and object of unmaking. To take these two consequences into account, this PhD project adds the lens of rural and urban space and their relations to the UNMAKING programme. It explores this lens by focusing on the case of the German agri-food system, and its disruption by agricultural grassroots initiatives, of which Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Permaculture and Food Policy Council (FPC) initiatives will be studied.

The exploration consists of three steps. First, treating rural and urban and their relations as a context, the project begins by asking in how far the context of the German countryside facilitates and constrains the unmaking attempts by agricultural grassroots initiatives, and how this differs from urban and rural-urban contexts in Germany. Rural, urban and rural-urban contexts are conceptualised as hybrid assemblages, performed by a diversity of actants – in the case of the German countryside for example both by left-leaning environmentalists and the conservative electorate. Building on this, I then investigate the rural and urban as an object of unmaking, asking whether and how German CSAs and FPCs actively unmake the cultural rift between the urban and the rural by materially re-connecting towns and cities with their peri-urban and rural surroundings through the medium of food. As a last step, it is explored if and how the agricultural grassroots initiatives protect their newly created peri-capitalist space against the hostile environments in which they are embedded: the contexts of hyper commercialised cities, industrialised ruralities, or countrysides that have been co-opted by the German far-right.