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The Virtual Market

The very nature of the public realm is shifting, and with it the exchange of ideas and goods at the heart of society, writes Carolyn Steel in this extract from her new book Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World

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La Defense in Paris. Getty Images
La Defense in Paris. Getty Images

Listening to Oliver Raevel, former head of commodities at Euronext, Europe’s largest commodities exchange, talk about grain, rain, sun and soil up in his glassy eyrie in Paris’ La Défense is something of an out-of-body experience. It all feels a long way from the reality of food: apart from a few stalks of wheat in a pot on his desk, we may as well be talking about car insurance.


Only at the top of the building does one get a glimpse of what Euronext is really about: a fully glazed, double-height space in which twenty or so people sit staring at monitors beneath a huge, Piccadilly-Circus-like circular screen displaying the latest market prices around the world.


This is where the exchange does its work, monitoring the market and relaying up-to-the-minute data to its many clients. Compared to the magnificence of the Bourse de Commerce, built next to Les Halles in 1763 as a corn exchange, the space is underwhelming, yet the volume of trade passing through here is millions of times greater than anything the old exchange ever handled.


Every year, some $1.5 trillion worth of food – one quarter of the world’s supply – is traded on such markets. Should we worry that our most vital commodity is distributed via what amounts to one vast, globalised casino? The human rights lawyer Olivier De Schutter, who served as the United Nations’ ‘special rapporteur on the right to food’ (2008–14), certainly thinks so.


Wealth and power, once manifest in the physical fabric of the city, are now hidden from view


In a 2010 briefing note, De Schutter blamed speculation as a key factor in the 2008 food price spikes, concluding that ‘fundamental reform of the broader global financial sector is urgently required in order to avert another food price crisis’. In a world in which financialisation is increasingly seen as a panacea, however, such reform in the near future seems unlikely.


Since the millennium, deregulation and automation have transformed the way that the global economy operates. With the advance of digital finance, old distinctions between commerce, government and civil society have become blurred. Wealth and power, once manifest in the physical fabric of the city, are now hidden from view.


Like the virtual exchange at Euronext, the true reach of institutions and corporations is intangible and virtually unlimited. In contrast to the historic marketplace, where traders sold their wares under the watchful eye of civic authorities, our modes of exchange in the digital age are fleeting, secretive and obscure.


Bourse de Commerce in Paris. Getty Images
Bourse de Commerce in Paris. Getty Images


What implications do such economic structures have for our chances of freedom, opportunity and justice? How, in the modern world, can we perceive the power structures that govern us, let alone challenge them? The spatial transformations wrought by industrialisation have been augmented by a digital disembodiment that renders power and influence all but invisible. So rapid and radical has this transformation been that we are only just starting to grasp its implications.


The very nature of the public realm is shifting, and with it the exchange of ideas and goods at the heart of society. Once a physical place where anyone was free to act, public space was essential to the evolution of democracy. From the Athenian agora, where citizens gathered to vote and debate, to seventeenth-century London coffee houses where public opinion and the modern press evolved, such spaces have hosted the discourse that has shaped free society.


Now, however, the space of exchange is increasingly moving online, to digital platforms which, as the illegal targeting of Facebook users during the 2016 Brexit vote demonstrated, is far from public or democratic.


If we are to thrive in this new reality, we are going to need ways of making our relationships tangible again, which means examining what it means to share.


This is an extract from Steel’s latest book, Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World



Steel will be speaking at Can food rebuild our communities, a free online event on Tuesday 28 April at 10am via Zoom. The Festival of Place Bytesize event is run in association with U+I Think and is free to attend, but participants need to register with Zoom. Steel will be joined by Martyn Evans, Creative Director at U+I and The Developer Editor-in-Chief Christine Murray


Patrons to The Developer gain early access to tickets and other opportunities.


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