1980s >> 1982 >> no-935-july-1982

Capitalism and hunger

One of the commonest platitudes to trip glibly off the tongues of politicians is “the interests of the community”. No politician would say that people do not matter; rather, they claim that work, administration, services and facilities should serve the well-being of all of society’s members. But, in reality, this is not the case. There is a wide difference between what we expect of society and the real way it works.

Production is crucial to everyday living. It should provide for our food, housing, clothing, our enjoyment of leisure, and our care of the aged, the sick and the young. We should manage this with dignity and security. These are the things that society should be organised to provide for.

So how does capitalism measure up to this expectation of life; the reasonable view for example that food should be produced directly for people to eat? We find that this is not what happens. When a farmer or some “agribusiness” makes a decision to organise food production, feeding people is just about the last thing they have in mind. What they firstly have in mind is making a profit and accumulating capital.

Although the operations of some capitalist farming enterprises are ruthlessly exploitative, farmers in general are not particular social villains. In a capitalist world they do not have much choice. If farmers were to invest in food production against the judgement that they will make a profit, they would be committing economic suicide. The object of the farmer is to accumulate capital, not to waste it. That is why the farmer goes in for food production, why he invests in land, fertilisers, seeds, farm machinery, and above all why he invests in farm labour power.

But still the naive might think that the production of food for profit enables need to be satisfied, and that without the profit motive we would all starve. But the reality is that the need for food, under capitalism, is only satisfied when it constitutes a market. The facts are that people starve because they cannot afford food, and it is a result of their poverty position in the social relationships of production that they cannot do so.

Reality is not what it is commonly assumed to be. Capitalist production uses human wants for making profit. Human wants are satisfied on the prior condition that this is profitable, within the system of producing food as commodities for sale on the markets. The organisation War On Want has reported: “In the Bangladesh famine in 1974 there was three months’ supply of grain stored away, yet people were dying right outside the stores. They could not afford to buy what was there”.

The mention of commodities is important in understanding the object of present society. Every form of society produces useful wealth, but only capitalism produces overwhelmingly commodities. It does so against the background of productive relationships which only operate under capitalism: the exploitation of wage labour by capital. As with capitalism in general, the commodity is a very anti-social thing. Its production tells us more about human denial than human fulfilment.

Under capitalism, as with all forms of society, what is required for food production is the useful labour of food producers. Labour power also functions as a commodity. It is bought and sold at its price, which are wages, on the labour market. The farmer also has to buy machinery, seeds and fertilisers and these are produced by exploiting wage labour in other parts of the total productive process.

The object of the food producing enterprise is to realise profit and the accumulation of capital, so it is looking for values which are extra to the values of the initial investment. The source of these extra values lies in the wage labour part of the investment, because labour power is different to other commodities. Labour power ft the one thing that capital invests in which, when put to use, has the ability to create values over and above its own value. The influence of the markets sets limits to food production which are far below the potential which would be possible were food produced directly for human need.

There are few so-called “developed” countries which do not have government policies intended to restrict the production of food. The balance of restricted production with market capacity is not easy to control. Food which is surplus, not to human need but to market capacity, is stockpiled in wine lakes, butter mountains and so on. Fruit and vegetables are often destroyed so that the market price might be protected.

In America, thousands of tons of grain are stockpiled. The American government has made various attempts to restrict food production. One example was the “soil bank”, where farmers were compensated for taking land out of production. It failed, partly because farmers cultivated their remaining land more intensively and this resulted in higher food production. Thus the farmers were doubly compensated, firstly for taking acreage out of production and secondly by receiving subsidies for the extra food produced. In recent years in Australia, a region which has an enormous potential for food production, the Victorian State Government has paid farmers 10 dollars a head to kill cattle and bury them in lime pits, as part of a price support scheme.

Another aspect of restricted food production is that many of the world’s millions of unemployed are farm workers. This only makes sense in terms of the obscene logic of capitalist economics, and brings us back to the real priorities of world capitalism. A farm worker, as with any other worker, is taken out of production when there is no immediate prospect of exploiting his labour power for profit.
We cannot pretend that the object of present society is concern for human welfare. The production and distribution of food is organised as a world business. Its possibilities, but more importantly its limitations, are given within the framework of profit and loss accounts. The human misery which results is not relevant to those accounts.

The human cost of restricted food production and distribution is well known. Understanding of this misery is obscured by the dominant economic interests. Most estimates are that two-thirds of the world’s population do not get enough to eat in sufficient balance to sustain good health. This includes millions in the so-called “developed” countries who are living below the poverty line. The problem was dramatised in the report of UNICEF for 1981 as follows: “Every day this year (1981) 40,000 children died. Usually they were the youngest and weakest of the Third World’s 100,000,000 children who are always hungry”.

Clearly then we need a society which is concerned with the interests of all its members. The alternative to capitalism is a new set of productive relationships—socialism. The alternative to the present world where resources are monopolised by a privileged minority is a world which is held in common and at the free disposal of all humanity. The alternative to commodity production for the market is the production of useful wealth directly for human need.

The transfer of the world into the hands of all humanity and its conscious democratic control for the human interest is the political act of socialism. This transformation of productive relationships will remove the economic limitations of capitalist production and enable us to deal in a practical way with social problems.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation has put together over recent years an extensive description of the problem of hunger, though their analysis of its causes is weak. (They are, after all, funded by world capitalism.) Nevertheless they have collected data on the distribution of hunger, malnutrition and its related diseases, existing food sources and their use, potential food sources, efficiencies of systems of food production, the uses of mechanisation, fertilisers, transport and their relationship to productivity.

The FAO has also studied such aspects of the problem as crop location and scales of production, hybridisation of new plant varieties and their suitability in different conditions, and also food production in relation to conservation of resources and the environment. This knowledge entirely disproves the prejudiced view that hunger is caused by lack of resources or technique.

It must be stressed that while the scale of the problem of hunger requires productive efficiency, production for use need not confine its farming methods to those which have been profitable in the competitive, commodity-producing system of capitalism. It will have wide latitude in its choice of methods which will be decided by necessity and practicality. (Practicality being availability of technique, labour, resources, as well as considerations of suitability such as safety.)

In 1980, world capitalism afforded 20,000 million pounds worth of arms sales, and at the same time carried over 20 million unemployed in Europe and America alone. This represented only a fraction of total wasted labour under capitalism. The socialist policy is that world social production be adapted on the basis of common ownership and production for use so that these wasted resources are used for the benefit of the world’s people.

Pieter Lawrence