1990s >> 1990 >> no-1032-august-1990

Food, Hunger and Politics

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the present way of organising society cannot ensure that everyone has enough to eat. Millions go hungry in what the Times (10 June 1985) admitted is “a world which is awash with food surpluses”.

High-powered conferences of experts have failed to solve the problem. Reports and resolutions provide empty words for empty bellies. The objective proclaimed in 1974 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger that “within a decade no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will fear for its next days bread” (London Evening Standard, 5 November 1974) has been a mockery. There are now. both in absolute and relative terms, a greater number of hungry people in the world than there were then.

The efforts of voluntary relief agencies have fared no better. They face what they have called “donation fatigue’ and openly admit that they have to rely on the actions of governments—of those in charge of the system that produces the problem in the first place.

Hiroshima every three days

People are dying in their millions from entirely preventable causes. The side-effects of hunger and malnutrition kill 15 million children a year. Fifteen million completely unnecessary deaths. Poverty killing more than war ever did. And yet the means of ending hunger are to hand. Susan George, Associate Director of the Transnational Institute and writer and broadcaster on world poverty, claims that providing for the needs of 15 million could be done by 3.6 millions tons of grain. World harvests of grain in 1980 were 1.556 million tons. To feed the 450 million estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to be malnourished would only take 128 million tons of cereals—8 percent of world harvests, less than the United States feeds to its livestock (world-wide, half the grain crop is fed to animals). In 1984 the FAO estimated global cereal carry-over stocks as 294 million tons (State of Food and Agriculture, 1984. p. 47).

That people are hungry because they are poor is a theme which runs through a series of essays written in the 1980s by Susan George and now published in a revised form as Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Books. £5.99). The book is written with a deep concern for the victims of a world where “the toll of hunger on human life is equal to a Hiroshima explosion every three days” (p. 223).

She catalogues in detail some of the seemingly endless contradictions of a world where profit is the driving force behind the production of the means of life. “Higher productivity—and higher profits— actually mean more hungry people . . . ” Even a so-called success such as the “green revolution” brings in its wake a loss of land and employment for millions because it was “a means of increasing food production without upsetting entrenched interests (as well as a means of providing increased revenues to the Western firms supplying industrial inputs)” (p.184).

This has resulted in a situation where poor peasants now die of exposure in the Indian province of Bihar. Straw was formerly free for bedding, but the new breeds of cereals have shorter straws which now command a price as a raw material used in paper-making (to replace wood which is in short supply due to deforestation). At the same time, “substantial grain reserves exist partly because half the population is too poor to buy them” (p. 184).

However, while the descriptions of the scale and effect of the profit system are written with a humanitarian concern for the poor and the destitute. George’s prescriptions for actions are deeply flawed. Having recognised that the economic power of the more industrially and economically advanced nations is used for the furtherance of profit, and that to this end the privileged elites of the “Third World” are willingly enlisted as allies, she fails to draw the obvious conclusion: if ensuring that all have enough to eat is not a technical problem but a political one, then the techniques and means of life must cease to be the property of a tiny privileged minority. They must be made the common property of the whole of humanity. Production must be directly for use and not for sale on a market where “the poor cannot express their needs in terms of money, the only language the market economy understands” (P. 6).

Third world elites

What George is doing is to decry the effects without removing the causes of those effects. Having, consciously or unconsciously, rejected a complete change in society she is forced back into attempts at reforming the present system. This results in her appealing to the self-interest of nationalists in less developed countries, to the economic self-interest of European capitalists (she has given up on the USA and Russia), and, most futile of all, for “justice”.

She appeals to those elites in the Third World (short-hand for those areas of the world where capitalism is still in the process of being developed at the expense of the increasingly landless peasants) who are perceived to be “working for the betterment of their countries”. These she calls “true nationalists”. But, if as she argues, the system that dominates the world is increasingly global then the solutions to the problems it creates must also be global.

Capital must of its nature expand at the expense of other capitals. To advocate the implementation of schemes that are deliberately labour intensive (so as to provide work for the jobless peasant/worker in the making) is to invite disappointment when the system follows its own immutable laws. She is not unaware of these laws, describing the “trans national corporations” (TNCs) as operating as follows:

  In a world of rising costs and diminishing profits, it becomes more important than ever for the industrialised countries and the TNCs to maintain and to reinforce their hegemony over the global economy. They must, from their point of view, increase their control over world production, and world markets . . . Those who believe that these companies have any object besides the enhancement of their own profits are making a serious mistake. (pp. 93-4).

If banks and international lenders see these firms as more reliable and more profitable than local Third World ones, and so give them better credit terms and loan facilities, it is unrealistic to expect them to act otherwise—they exist, after all, in the same profit-seeking economic environment. If in acting this way they “thereby indirectly prevent the creation and expansion of national firms which are short of working capital” (p. 102), nothing can be done about it; this is the way the capitalist system works.

What should be noted here is that we are being asked to take sides with the emergent capitalists in the less developed world—with the very group who control the state and have no compunction in using the military and police to “control” the desperate and hungry when they revolt (as Kaunda recently did in Zambia). Nationalists everywhere have always acted this way when they come to power and are strong enough to implement the rule of the class they represent, using the state “to extract as much wealth as possible from the countryside” (p. 215) (actually, from the labour-power of the people living there).

Giving this parasitic class in the making a sympathetic leg-up to join the first division of robbers will not solve the problems of the poor. George’s dream of an improvement in the lot of the Third World poor through economic developmemt “independent” of the more developed capitalist countries is a non-starter. Not that the full development of a successful and prosperous capitalist system is a guarantee against hunger, as the existence of 20 million hungry Americans testifies (Scientific American, February 1987)

Who’s aiding who?

If her appeals for “independent” development in the Third world are unrealistic, her appeals to the power structures of the European Community are unnecessary. She tempts them with the following;

By espousing the cause of three-quarters of humanity. Europe would also, in the fullness of time, reap the more traditional commercial and financial benefits. (p. 68. emphasis added).

She need not worry. This kind of self-interested approach to aid has already been eagerly adopted by both the major British political parties. In a debate a few years ago on famine and debt in developing countries, Timothy Raison, Tory Minister for Overseas Development, told the House of Commons:

  I believe that our approach to debt is sound. We have to work constructively in the world that exists. . . .  At the same time of course, we are concerned with British interests. We want to develop good relations and see stability increase and see potential markets grow . . . The aid trade provision enables us to respond flexibly to commercial opportunities . . . Over the last few years some £350 million of aid trade provision has resulted in British firms winning contracts overseas valued at more than £1,400 million. (Hansard. 11 June 1985. Vol 80. colls 779-780).

While in power the Labour Party also embrace “the world that exists” and the “commercial approach”. Aid to the Third World is regarded as being in line with “British interests”. Judith Hart. Labour Minister for Overseas Development, claimed an even better return than Raison’s. This indirect subsidy to British capitalists cost £400m but resulted in £2,400 million’s worth of exports—”growth for them means imports from us” (Times. 14 July. 1976).

The other main remedy Susan George relies on is a case for “justice”—an appeal to give the rapidly disappearing peasants a “fair” chance to help themselves. This amounts to trying to make the market system, which is driving them out of existence, work other than the way it must. To complain that TNCs “underpay” for Third World commodities is to ignore the fact that in any market buyers press for the lowest price while sellers press for the highest. Crying foul when the powerful exploit their advantage is no cure. The establishment of an “independent” enclave which would somehow circumvent the weak position of Third World producers is a chimera. The food producers of the EC and the USA, for example, can always as part of a potential trade war dump food on the world markets at prices which Third World peasants cannot compete with.

The only real hope for the hungry and exploited of the Third World lies in their realisation of the potential power they collectively have and organising consciously and politically with their fellow workers in the developed capitalist countries to democratically abolish capitalism and establish socialism. This entails the pursuit not of “justice” but of interest. Free men and women have no need of justice.

Gwynn Thomas