“Money na hand before the chop”
For many years we have read about hunger in Africa. Newspaper headlines and television news have been saturated with gruesome scenes of corpses; and pictures of emaciated women and children standing helplessly before NGO officials waiting for food to be doled out to them. Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia have all experienced famine unparalleled in the history of the continent for the past forty years. Again we have seen statistics that show more than 800 million of our fellow humans suffering from chronic malnutrition; that on any day 1.3 million will go without food.
While these statistics are extremely shocking we can still find governments that pursue policies that are nothing less than obscene – ordering the destruction of food and paying farmers to take land out of production in order that prices can be kept high. The June 1999 issue of the European Voice, for instance, reported that the EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler was expected to propose a doubling of the proportion of arable land to be left uncultivated. Experts predicted that he was going to put forward a proposal to set aside 10 percent of land in the 1999 season, because the 5 percent level in previous years had failed to prevent soaring cereal production, causing a sharp drop in European Union market prices. This, according to the experts, forced the institution to buy in large amounts of surplus wheat and barley at guaranteed prices. Surplus stocks stood at about 15 million tonnes. “We estimate that if this rate of 5 percent is carried over into the next year, they will rise to 25 million tonnes,” Franz Fischler said. If this is not abominable what else can it be?
The Roman Catholic Church, charity organisations and NGOs may do their bit to soothe the pangs of hunger, by distributing milk powder, yellow corn and beans here and there. This would not be bad. But their work would not be addressing the fundamental cause of hunger. They would only be treating the symptoms of a malignant tumour which has deeper roots. The problem is the capitalist system of production whose article of faith is “money na hand before chop” (pay before you eat). It is a system many governments believe can be made to run in the interest of all, i.e. of both rich and poor alike. Thus the New Patriotic Party in Ghana refers to building a prosperous nation by creating wealth and sharing on the basis of private capital. The question is, is it possible to abolish hunger when a tiny minority own the means of production? In other words, is it possible to abolish hunger under the global profit system? The answer for me is no.
Need to make a profit
The fundamental reason for capitalist production is to produce for the market with a view to making profit. This overriding interest in profit does not change, no matter in which economic sector production is carried out. In agriculture, production is not carried out because people need food. Of course needs are not completely ruled out in the process of capitalist production. They are met albeit inadequately for the producers and more than sufficiently for the owning class, otherwise human society would perish. The point, however, is that this is marginal to the main focus of the market economic system, which is the accumulation of capital. But capitalist enterprises can only accumulate capital if they stay competitive by adding value to their products. So the market is also important in the capitalist system of production because profits can only be realised from a commodity if it is sold in a market and converted to money. It is also the reason why enterprises would go full hog to hoodwink people through deceptive adverts in order to sell their products even if they are shoddy and injurious to the health of the consumer. Most of these profits are then reinvested in production so increasing the size of the capital the enterprise controls. This is an imperative that is imposed on all capitalist enterprises by their competitive struggle for profits. In this competition capitalists are not reluctant to use the most base methods of survival – forgery, swindles, bribery, lies and extortion. Capitalists become like a pack of wolves wrangling over the prey – anytime ready to tear each other by the throat. Emile Zola, a French writer, put this dog-eat-dog scenario in perspective when he said:
“In these battles for money, secret and vile, where the weak are disembowelled, there are no longer bonds, kinship or friendship. It is the cruel principle of the strong, who eat others or else they will be eaten themselves” (L’argent, Francois Bernaud, Paris 1928, pp.339-40).
An irrational and cruel system such as capitalism is not a productive and distributive system concerned to ensure that bellies are full. Food is not produced because people need it to survive, but because the owners of land other means of production need to make profit. Also, no account would also be taken of whatever method is used to produce such food, i.e. whether it is ruinous to the environment or not. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used in agriculture, animals injected with hormones, and fertile lands used to grow coffee and tobacco instead of millet or maize. One’s ability to access food is through ownership and money. Amartya Sen underscored this point in a study he undertook for the ILO when he pointed out that starvation is a function of entitlements and not of food availability.
In the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe people get money to pay for their food in two ways. They either milk other people or allow themselves to be milked, depending on the position they occupy in relation to the means of production. So one’s ability to eat and make a choice of what one wants to eat depends on money. This is a property claim in that the exchange of money for food is a property transaction involving the exchange of equivalent values.
In underdeveloped countries like Ghana, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the situation is not exactly the same. There is a category of people that can have access to food without necessarily selling their labour output to others. Such people can have access to food without money because they directly own and work the land. But, here again, one realises some concurrence between what pertains in the sense that it is either ownership or non-ownership of the means of production that determines the ability of a person to have access to food. There are others according to Amartya Sen whose ownership arise from money obtained from petty trading. The loud noises made about the scarcity of food is not entirely justified. There is a lot of food in Ghana and most other developing countries; but the fundamental problem is whether the propertyless masses can afford to pay for it.
No solution within market system
With the opening of the Ghanaian economy to unbridled market forces, the market stalls are stocked with a variety of food items – burgers, cheese, honey, ham, frogs’ legs, etc; but the poor can only cast desirous looks at them and pass by. In spite of the glaring inequalities and obvious contradictions in the market system, the New Patriotic Party government and other governments in Africa, together with imperialists frontal organisations like the IMF and World Bank believe that it can work in the interest of all – poor and rich alike.
Whether this type of thinking is born out of a genuine lack of understanding of how the capitalist system works is not the main thrust of this article. What is of concern is whether the market system can solve the perennial food shortages that continue to affect hundreds of millions of people in Africa and other parts of the world, including those in the capitalist metropolis. The myth surrounding the capability of the capitalist system to feed the hungry and abolish hunger was demythologised many years ago when Henry Kissinger made a promise to the world food summit that this was indeed possible. At the time there were 400 million chronically malnourished, a 75-million increase over the previous ten years. Yet Kissinger had an almost sanguine expectation that this would happen. He swore world hunger would be eradicated without considering the eradication of the most fundamental cause of the problem – capitalism. Twenty years after Kissinger’s promise the situation has more than worsened. The number of poor and hungry people has since doubled; and experts believe that not even the best of efforts could improve the situation in the next thirty or so years.
Many more years to come we will continue to witness many more of such summits and conferences all purporting to examine the phenomenon of global hunger and find lasting solutions to it. A lot of bilge will be thrown up as solutions to the problems, but you can bet the last coin in your pocket that no remedy will be found. This would not be because there is no solution. It would be because there is one solution which is distasteful and horrifying to governments whose role is to facilitate the running of the capitalist state machine. It is socialism.
ADONGO AIDAN AVUGMA