Man, The State, and Bread
Jose Ciro Martinez's States of Subistence
Bread is very much on the mind of the Middle East these days. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its Black Sea blockade have disrupted the export of grains from two countries whose exports make up 76% of Lebanon’s imports, 74% of Turkey’s, 73% of Egypts and 68% of Libya’s. India’s decision to block wheat exports after climate change decimated its crops has compounded the supply problem. Meanwhile, climate change and drought had already been wreaking havoc on domestic agriculture in Iran, Iraq, and other MENA countries. Regimes face an unpalatable choice between allowing bread prices to soar or maintaining increasingly expensive subsidies (or, in the case of Lebanon’s mind-numbing disaster, where the Port explosion wiped out a signifcant part of its grain reserves) just run out completely). Regimes obsessed primarily with guaranteeing their own survival in power obsess over the risk of bread riots, the eruptions of mass anger which have frequently been triggered in the region’s modern history - most famously, perhaps, in Egypt (1977) and Jordan (1989) - by increases in the price of bread. Citizens want to be able to feed their families, and expect their governments to make that possible.
In this context, Jose Ciro Martinez’s brilliant new book, States of Subsistence, largely sets aside those dominant questions of bread riots, food security, regime survival and economic reforms to craft a uniquely important and absolutely fascinating look into the political meaning of the lived experience of subsidized bread in Jordan. Building on his own earlier work inspired by non-MENA scholars like Erica Simmons on the unique moral economy of bread, Martinez now sets off in a different direction, using “the politics of bread” to offer an innovative ethnography of the state as encountered by its citizens in the routine moments of everyday life. You will never look at a bakery the same way again.
Bread, as Martinez demonstrates, isn’t just the staple of the Jordanian diet, and the bread subsidy which keeps it affordable isn’t just a budget item. Martinez centers bread as a key point of contact between Jordanian citizens and the state, focusing on the ubiquitous bakeries which sell the subsidized bread in every neighborhood and town across the Kingdom. He tells his story from multiple perspectives: as an ethnography of the bakery itself, as an account of how citizens experience bakeries and bread, and as an institutional account of the development of an effective state bureaucracy. His remarkable book moves boldly across these levels of analysis, from a dissection of the state bureaucracy to the daily ritual of buying and eating bread of individual Jordanians, and shows why it matters.
First, ethnography. To really grasp the operation of bread and bakeries, Martinez actually worked in several Jordanian bakeries, learning how to make the bread while working alongside the other bakers. Like Lois Wacquandt, who famously became a boxer for his study of embodied practice, Martinez trains his body and his mind through hard work to learn the craft of baking. Those experiences allow for a rich, evocative ethnography of bakeries from the producer’s side.
He provides an equally compelling ethnography from the consumer’s side, joining his friends on their morning treks to the bakery. His vivid descriptions of the smell of baking bread and the familiar lines gathering brought back a lot of fond memories of my own daily excursions when I lived in Amman. It’s fascinating to think of that ritual in a sense contributing to sense of Jordanian national identity, the synchronized common experience that Benedict Anderson might have written about.
States of Subsistence isn’t just an ethnography, though. Martinez uses bread to produce an innovative and compelling investigation of the state as an institutional actor. Dissatisfied with conventional political science discussions of state capacity and state failure, Martinez sets out to provide an account of the state rooted in its ongoing encounter with its citizens. Drawing on theorists such as Timothy Mitchell and James Scott, he explores the porous, continuously negotiated boundaries between state and society and ways states seek to render their societies legible. The bread subsidy here is more than just a way to buy consent - “bread for freedom", in the classic formulation. It represents one of the principal embodied ways in which citizens encounter the state — and, in contrast to many expectations about weak, dysfunctional MENA states, here they encounter a state that works. He notes how many Jordanian citizens demand more state, not less: why, they ask, do the bakeries work so smoothly while schools, hospitals, and other core public services remain disastrously neglected?
He does so in a very concrete, applied way, however, rather than remaining in the realms of abstract theory. He provides a detailed description of the creation of the Ministry of Supply and the practical construction of bread distribution infrastructure. He locates the imperative to create this state institution in a 1974 protest by members of the armed forces over the price of bread, a challenge from within the core of the state which focused the attention of King Hussein, otherwise famously disinterested in economic issues. Martinez takes “the state” beyond abstraction, showing how it evolved to coordinate wheat imports and quality inspections, produce flour for distribution, authorize bakeries, and regularly inspect them for quality control and illicit uses of the subsidized flour. His descriptions of the regular inspections of the bakeries reveals how citizens both comply and resist as they negotiate terms with the agents of the state - with protests not always being what they seem, and with “cheating” not always something to be punished.
This is the state as encountered by citizens, rather than as an object of political theory or simply as an agent of repression and control. As he travels the country visiting bakeries, on his own or in the company of the ubiquitous inspectors, Martinez does a remarkable job of demonstrating the uneven penetration and coherence of the state by moving across Amman neighborhoods and then outside of Amman. In the southern town Ma’an, known for its repeated protests, he watches tanks deployed outside the city while wheat delivery trucks are welcomed - a beautiful metaphor for citizens’ differential engagement with the state.
States of Subsistence should be read widely across comparative politics beyond the Middle East. Like Jillian Schwedler’s wonderful recent book on protest (which I reviewed a few weeks ago here) it uses the “small” case of Jordan to draw big theoretical and methodological lessons. Its combination of ethnography and institutional analysis will help a lot of scholars to rethink their approach to theorizing the state — which can be strong and capable when it wants to be — and its citizens — who do more than just protest and suffer under repression. Not every graduate student is going to take up an apprenticeship in a bakery, but a lot of them will get useful ideas about the research potentials of observing everyday life.
Note: I illustrated my post several weeks ago about Elon Musk and Twitter with a wonderfully creative and brilliantly conceived piece of digital art produced by the interent freedom advocacy group SMEX for their newsletter “the byte.” They had graciously given permission for us to use it on the cover of our POMEPS Studies collection on digital authoritarianism. I forgot to credit them again when I used the image on the blog, and I do very much apologize for that. It’s a great organization and you should definitely follow their important work (here, on Twitter).
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