I never considered that this was actually a strategy. Really, it just seemed like an almost inevitable trajectory of mankind as we became more and more clever with our witty inventions to make our lives “easier”. Yes, it is a thing, and it has a name – Deskilling. From the book Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat? by Philip H. Howard, Bloomsbury 2016:
Deskilling is a term that is frequently used in reference to labor, when capitalists reshape jobs in order to decrease wages (Braverman 1998). It can also apply when capitalists reshape socio-cultural practices to increase purchases, moving us away from self-provisioning to become mere “consumers” (Jaffe and Gertler 2006). Deskilling increases control for capitalists but makes us more dependent upon them by eroding our knowledge and abilities. (emphasis added)
Deskilling: The Formula
Like Janet said, its all about control. Let’s take an example from the earliest point in life this side of Womb-topia: infant formula. According to an article on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s website, the first infant formula was invented in the late 19th century. Before that, babies were fed animal milk only in very rare circumstances. If their mothers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) nurse them, they were fed human milk by a hired wet nurse. These alternatives were options only of necessity.
Before long, with the industrial revolution and ensuing shifts in the world’s paradigms sending more and more women out of the home and into the workforce, the use of infant formula – the first one was a blend of cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour and potassium bicarbonate – became more widespread. Certainly, corporations producing it, perhaps in tandem with dairy farmers, saw dollar signs dancing before their eyes, and eventually, in a grand deskilling coup, breastfeeding became outmoded, even taboo.
Now that we in America are deskilled in the art of breastfeeding to the point that our mothers and grandmothers are hardly equipped to guide us, Nestle an’ dem have control of our infant’s nourishment from day one. Hospital nurses are often ready to stick a bottle in your newborn’s mouth by default.
You get free product to start from those that want your continued custom (a.k.a. the first hit is free tactic). Then, if you can’t afford to buy more, you can go on the government rolls and apply for benefits to cover it. You have no control over what ingredients go in it. Had you considered delaying your baby’s first taste of sugar so he can develop a real palate for food? Sorry, mama, Gerber already got’em! Once the baby is on it and you let your milk supply end, that’s it. You’re locked in for at least the next 2 years.
Moments in Deskilling History
Here’s a list of a few more products that we purchase regularly as a result of systematic deskilling:
- Box Cake Mix – Can you say “Flour, Sugar, Eggs and Butter?” I had to in Home Economics class, which I think has now gone the way of the dinosaur!
- Jam/Jelly – Preserving fruit was originally for enjoying summer’s harvest throughout the following winter. Who does that anymore?
- Bagged/Microwave Popcorn – Kernels in a pot cost much less and you can control your flavoring to suit you. Only God and food scientists know what’s really in those pouches…
- Bagged and Clamshell Salads and Baby Spinach – E-coli, anyone? Not if you buy heads and bunches and CUT IT UP YOURSELF! Man, deskilling kills…
- Supermarkets – Because why waste time and get all dirty growing and harvesting food yourself? Why only eat what is local and in season?
Convenience is the sales pitch, but our dependence on food producers is their lifeblood. It is powerful in a dangerous way. Indeed, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Because now, what they provide has become your norm, and you’re hooked.
If you were to make your own fruit preserves, for example, would it taste like theirs? Never! Big food employs teams of scientists to spend all day figuring out the exact amount of sugar to put into the jam to get you hooked and keep you coming back for more. In their language, they engineer it to your pleasure point. Now does that truly sound like someone making food?
The Future of Deskilling
So what happens when a country or society is totally deskilled? I mean, where do the companies that have saturated a market now turn to? Indeed, there are places all over our world that are still “backwards” or “underdeveloped” by our standards. Never fear! Corporations are here! According to Concentration and Power, companies actively look for new societies to “deskill” so that they can create new dependent client bases for their products. They insidiously create need where there was none before.
Imagine being told your way of life is ignorant and old. Imagine the heartbreak when the young people in your society agree with this critique, eschewing inherited cultural wisdom for new-fangled shortcuts that take control out of your peoples’ hands and puts it into the hands of interlopers. Soon, the deskilling process is complete and your whole way of life has changed.
No more home gardening, market trading with neighbors, seed saving, peak season eating, home cooking, time honored traditions of storing and preserving. Kids don’t got no time for that!
Surely this cannot end well!
You foresee an epoch where your once proud people now cry hungry even with whole, real food within their grasp because they don’t now how to prepare it, all because of deskilling. Can you imagine a future in which a young person doesn’t even know how to boil a pot of water? We have plug in kettles, instant oatmeal, microwave bags of foods that eliminate that necessity already. Deskilling mission: accomplished!
Sure, there is some deskilling I will NEVER argue with – dishwashers, washing machines, and disposable diapers are GREAT inventions! But then again, if for some reason these were not available – like when we reach peak oil – I do still know how to wash dishes, clothes and cloth diapers by hand.
Rise Up: Down With Deskilling, Rise Up Reskilling
Yes, there is hope. Let’s start RE-skilling, friends! Let’s exchange ideas and information and commit to teaching our children how to, well, do stuff! It will take some effort. We will need to reshape our way of thinking. Old needs to become new again as we in-mode DIY everything (except washing dishes and clothes, I concede to the machines for those chores unless absolutely necessary).
Indeed, it seems to be the direction things are starting to move in these days, with the urban garden movement and the search for solutions to ending the global Diabesity Pandemic.
We can keep this conversation going. Join the Really Nourish Reskilling Collective Chat on WhatsApp by clicking below.
It’s another great way of taking back our Food Sovereignty!