Dont mess with death mushrooms...
Don't mess with death mushrooms... Mantonature/gettyimages.com

Patch reports that a University of Washington gardener found no less than 40 "death cap" mushrooms on a section of the campus. The problem with these mushrooms is their appearance is not that different from a species of edible mushrooms (Caesar's mushroom and the straw mushroom). Eating a toxic mushroom, under the impression you are eating the harmless kind, can lead to the destruction of your kidney, your liver, and possibly your life . The symptoms of poisoning from the "death cap," whose scientific name is Amanita phalloides, can take six to 24 hours to appear. UW strongly recommends that foragers contact a doctor immediately upon feeling funny after eating the wrong mushroom.

Now that the news story is out of the way, let's turn to how we might interpret it within the context of the dominant mode of social reproduction of our times, capitalism. But before dipping into this, I must remark that as a Pacific Northwesterner, I have often found myself at a dinner table that holds some kind food (oysters, mushrooms, leaves) that the guest has proudly foraged. "Picked them myself," they say, as if this is reason enough for me to be excited. But instead, it's a reason to worry and figure out how to look like I'm eating the wild things without actually eating them. It's not that I find the productions of wild nature disagreeable. It's just that we, the subjects of globally connected markets, have a bad habit of not seeing capitalism as a historically specific culture, and as a consequence, we fail to recognize competent foraging also requires historically specific and elaborated cultural forms. If one understands that capitalism represents not a break from nature, but from other ways of relating to nature—in short, other cultures (many of which involved complicated traditions of gathering this and that kind of food), then you will understand why worry (even fear) should attend a meal with wild things picked by a person who believes they are doing the natural thing.

We can blame capitalism for hiding the fact that it is nothing more than a culture. It has been its goal from its start to convince its subjects that what distinguishes it from all other economic forms is that it is more efficient. Capitalism does away with culture; its only reason for being is to do the job better. Nothing more, nothing less. Even Karl Marx, the father of radical economics, held this opinion. Pro-market systems displaced social activities that were heavily determined by old and dusty and inefficient cultural traditions.

This is one of the most famous passages in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

This is capitalist realism, according to me (the great and late cultural critic Mark Fisher interpreted it another way—TINA). This realism erases, it seems, all traces of culture. But in fact what capitalism is, is a culture that erases other cultures, other histories and institutions of knowledge. The gathering of mushrooms is not nature as nature. It's a rich culture that has been cleared (erased) by capitalism. And as the culture of capitalism is complex, so is the tradition of gathering foods that are not domesticated. Foraging is not communion with the real. To believe this is to fall for the illusion of capitalist realism.

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The main problem is, we think that the processes of a market economy are ridiculously recondite, and that those that connect us with nature directly (this directness being is an illusion) must be simple, more earthy, more accessible. But this is far from the truth. The cultures of foraging are far from simple and represent an enormous amount of cultural information accumulated over thousands of years of human experience. To give you a sense of this richness, I want to end this post with a quote from Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, an excellent book by the evolutionary anthropologists Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd. What is important to understand, according to their way of thinking, which I wholly agree with, is cultural information that concerns foraging or survival in this or that environment is difficult to learn and master.

Here they describe the cultural information that's needed to cross "Devil's Road" without the support of capitalist technologies, which are, of course, also cultural productions.

"Devil's Road"—a bad stretch of the mainland route from Old Mexico to California, was used until the arrival of the railroad. For more than a century, Spanish, Mexican, and American travelers used El Camino del Diablo routinely. To get that far, every traveler had to be an experienced frontiersperson already, and no doubt most were hard-bitten, desert wise, and well equipped with familiar technology. It was the best of several bad routes and was starting with a goodly bit of relevant theory and some desert experience, doesn't seem to us a likely thing at all. Ethnographers remark on the subtlety of desert hunting and the complexity of hunting knowledge, belying the relative simplicity and paucity of the tools desert hunters use. A few pounds of wood, stone, and bone equipment is all you need, but you have to have command of a impressive amount of practical knowledge about natural history and have system of supporting institutions to make a go of it

When we lose that kind of cultural information, we become more dependent on the culture of capitalism, which in itself is disempowering. How does a can of food get to you? How was it farmed? Processed? Few of us actually know, and so our culture is not about how to cross a desert of fish in the arctic or forage mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest. It is about how to find the best price for a can of food or a car.