Erin Rizzato Devlin
Philosophy and Politics
The Politics of Bananas: Modern Slavery and the Commodification of Morality
Men can coexist on condition that they recognize each other as being all equally, though differently, human, but they can also coexist by denying each other a comparable degree of humanity, and thus establishing a system of subordination.
— Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques
The choices we make in our daily lives have consequences that span the oceans: many consumers are not aware that some of the most exotic foods which belong to our breakfast plates every single day, such as coffee or chocolate, have a profound impact on the lives of many people. In Western societies, we are used to eating and consuming fresh ingredients which sprout on a different continent, yet we are unable to see the very hands that carry a simple thing as a banana to our tables, as a consequence of a global supply chain. This alienation from the places and people involved in the supply chain leads consumers to ignore the impact of producing some foods and enabling them to travel all the way to one’s table. What is regarded as a simple commodity, in fact, is a result of the labour and exploitation of many families and crops on the other side of the ocean.
Modern slavery comes in many guises and is often obscured by the alienation of modern consumers from their products, an example of which includes the slave system that holds many people tied behind our food chains. As consumers, we unconsciously become commissioners of a system of inequality and exploitation which we ignore. This includes many ‘fair-trade’ certified products, which are employed by multinationals as a psychological marketing tactic. This phenomenon is described by the cultural anthropologist Richard Robbins (2013) as the ‘commodification of morality’, where even commitments to just, fair or sustainable practices have been monopolised by economic agents. Within this framework, our moral choices are put on the market with a price which rarely returns or reflects the true cost of such products. This article begins by defining modern slavery, proceeding with a particular focus on forced labour in the current neoliberal regime. This is then contextualised in the case study of bananas as one of the most consumed, yet furthest grown, items of Western diets. The article then analyses the ethical backdrop of economic practices, using the fair-trade movement as a synecdoche of the moral economy of our day. The main question raised within this analysis is to what extent our moral choices can contribute to exploitation or to social change, and how our way of eating can oppose the great inequalities that still exist in the present context.