1950s >> 1950 >> no-549-may-1950

Editorial: Misery From Surplus: Profit From Disaster

Since the end of the war a battle of words has been going on between those, like Lord Boyd Orr, who were alarmed about the danger of world starvation through growing population and low production of food and those who said that it was merely a short-term deficiency that would soon right itself. Among the optimists the lead was taken by the Express group of newspapers whose editors scoffed at the “prophets of disaster.” In this wordy warfare the early battles were won by Boyd Orr’s army and he succeeded in impressing his views on many Governments and international agencies but lately the tide has turned and the Express is now celebrating its victory. A Daily Express editorial (12th April, 1950) fires the following salvo at Boyd Orr: —


  “At this moment the United States Administration has 76,000,000 lb. of dried eggs in store and does not know what to do with them. It has 50,000,000 tons of potatoes. It is the embarrassed owner of a wheat surplus sufficient to bake 12 loaves for every man, woman, and child in the world. It has enormous surpluses of butter, prunes, dried milk, cheese, rice, and countless other articles of food. The American Government is at its wits’ end to know what to do with those stocks of food—particularly the perishable varieties. Almost without noticing the transformation, the world has swung from the shortages of wartime to sufficiency—to abundance—to glut! How foolish the calamity howlers look in the new age of food plenty!”


The Express goes on to appeal to the Minister of Food to get rid of rationing, bulk purchasing “and every other barrier between the British housewife and the world of plenty.”


It all looks very simple and unanswerable but in fact both of these schools of thought are wrong, they both leave out of account the world of capitalism that we live in. As they see the problem the world sometimes has too much and sometimes too little, or there is too much in one part of the world and too little in another—a food surplus in America and starving millions in China; not to mention the harassed British housewife whose votes the Conservative Express wishes to win at the next election. The real barrier between people’s needs and the things they want but can’t afford to buy is a class barrier. Neither in China nor anywhere else do the wealthy go without food or other things they want but in America itself, as another correspondent reports, “American housewives would take up the surplus at cheap prices. But sale to them below the current high price levels in banned. . . Millions of poor Americans are deprived of cheap food.” (People, 26th March, 1950). Thus correspondent reports the recent discovery of 100 children who were starving in Arizona; “The cold weather had thrown their fruit-picking parents into the ranks of America’s 4,684,000 unemployed.”


The crazy situation is one of those necessary results of capitalism. Food stuffs and all other articles are produced for sale in order to make profit, not with human needs in mind. If there is more produced than can be sold at profitable prices to those who have the money to buy, then prices fall and production is curtailed. In the crisis of the nineteen thirties we were told that the unemployment of industrial workers was due to the low world prices of food; the farmers were facing bankruptcy and could not buy industrial products. Then in the years immediately after the second world war we were told that the austerities imposed on British and other industrial workers were due to the excessive world prices of foodstuffs due to scarcity. The high prices encouraged more food production and now we are facing another glut which will again hit food producers. It was to ward this off that the American Government introduced the policy of paying high prices to American farmers and of putting their produce into store, with, as a result, the Gilbertian situation that has now arisen. The Manchester Guardian (14th April, 1950) has the following comment on it.


  “Nature is after all turning out not too unkind to the United States Government. The problem is the surplus of crops such as wheat, which under the price- support programme the Government has been having in effect to buy from the American farmers in order to build up stocks that cannot be sold. To prevent its financial commitments from growing still heavier the Government a few months ago got the farmers to agree to sow 15 per cent less winter wheat than they did the year before. But then the weather proved exceptionally good; it seemed likely that after all the crop from the reduced planting would be almost as high as last year’s. Lately, however, dry weather, dust storms, and insect damage in the south and centre of the Great Plains have come to the rescue. This month’s official crop report estimates that the harvest will after all be 15 per cent smaller than last year’s. The issue is still, of course, in doubt. A wickedly smiling Nature in the next few months may force the estimates up again; on the other hand, the insects and the rest may remain obliging.”


One of America’s problems is too many potatoes. The Government pays the farmer the guaranteed price for his potato crop on the farm, then the farmer pays a trifling price to the Government and buys them back again, but only on condition that he does not sell them in the market but uses them as animal feeding stuff. He can if he likes let them rot. Some potatoes are painted with blue dye so that they cannot illicitly be sold to the public for human consumption.


The truth is that capitalism can produce a surplus in terms of the market, the final result of which will be a cutting down of production, but it never has produced enough of all the things human beings need to satisfy their requirements.


The powers of production reached under capitalism could, if fully used and if devoted to human needs instead of being largely wasted on armaments, etc., satisfy all the requirements of the human race. But to allow them to be so used would wreck the complex and delicate marketing and profit-making organisation of the capitalist system.