From Sudan to Versailles, Cairo to Tehran, protests have always begun with the price of bread rising. And in 2018, it's still the best barometer we have for class, capitalism and powerby Ella Risbridger / January 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s 1789 in Versailles; it’s 1863 in Virginia; it’s 1977 all over Egypt; it’s simultaneously 1942 and 2017 in Arak and Tehran and Mashhad. It’s Sudan right now. The price of bread is rising, and the people are rioting in response.
This is what people do. From The Flour War (France, 1775) to the Bread Riots (Southern USA, 1863), when food is scarcer, the price of bread goes up—and the people march. This smallest of things—a cottage loaf, a slice of toast, a pitta—can topple governments and kings. It has before now, and it probably will again.
“Whenever the price of bread spikes, there will be political unrest,” Michael Pollan says in the “Air” episode of his Netflix food documentary, Cooked. “Governments work very hard to keep the price of bread down, because you can lose your head if the price of bread goes up too fast.”
Every politician, it seems, has always known this. The pre-revolutionary king of France was known, apparently, as “the first baker of the kingdom”. True, I can’t find any source for this other than Wikipedia, but whether it’s historically true or not, it’s very telling that it’s part of the story.
We want to associate this king with baking, the way the “breadwinner” of a household is the one who brings home the bacon (to mix metaphors the way one might mix ingredients). It’s about food, and providing it; it’s about the most important kind of food there is.
Learning to make bread—a multistage process of letting it ferment, rise, be kneaded, be baked—is an extraordinary thing for humanity to have done in the first place. Making bread is a question of spinning straw into gold, after all; of making something from nothing. Flour and water alone won’t keep you alive, but fermented and baked, people can survive on it.
A bowl of gruel for one becomes dinner for six out of thin air. That’s why bakers and millers feature so heavily in fairy tales: they are the original wizards.
Bread is also the cornerstone—the bread and butter, if you will—of finance. “Making dough” is “making money”: bread is money, or rather, money is bread. Money is only in the…