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The Polanyian Way? Voluntary Food Labels as Neoliberal Governance



Abstract:  Voluntary food labels that express ecological, social, and/or place-based values have been posed as an important form of resistance to neoliberalization in the Polanyian sense of protecting land, other natural resources, and labor from the ravages of the market. At the same time, these labels are in some respects analogs to the very things they are purported to resist, namely property rights that allow these ascribed commodities to be traded in a global market. After reviewing the Polanyian claims about these labels, the paper examines how these labels are operationalized and notes important differences in the sort of barriers to entry they erect, which in turn have quite different distributional consequences. It then goes on to discuss how these labels look to be an expression of roll-out neoliberalization. Following Heynen and Robbins who note four dominant aspects of neoliberalization of environmental governance (governance, privatization, enclosure, and valuation), to which a fifth (devolution) is added, the paper shows how these labels not only concede the market as the locus of regulation, but in keeping with neoliberalism's fetish of market mechanisms, they employ tools designed to create markets where none previously existed. In recognition that neoliberal political economies and subjectivities have delimited the possible, the paper also grapples with how these labels may produce political openings outside of their most proximate effects.

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