2000s >> 2007 >> no-1238-october-2007

Poverty and famines

Why do famines occur? Because there’s not enough food or because people haven’t enough money to buy it?

To many people famines are caused by not enough food being available. This seems reasonable enough: why would people have to starve if there was enough food to feed them? It’s a good question, but it assumes that today food is produced to feed people whereas in fact this is not the case. It should be, but it isn’t. And it isn’t, because we are living in a capitalist society where food is not produced simply to satisfy people’s need for it but – like everything else – to be sold on a market with a view to making a profit. Food is a commodity which, like all commodities, can only be acquired if you have money (or something else) to exchange for it. If you don’t, then you starve. It’s as simple as that.

In 1981 the International Labour Organisation in Geneva published a study on famines by Amartya Sen, an Indian academic working in England, entitled Poverty and Famines. An Essay in Entitlement and Deprivation. Sen studied five famines: the Great Bengal famine of 1943, the Ethiopian famines of 1973 and 1974, the Bangladesh famine of 1974, and the Sahel famines of the 1970s.

His conclusion was that the widespread “food availability decline” theory of famines was mistaken. In its stead he proposed that they should be explained on the basis of  a failure or a decline in some people’s “entitlement” to food, i.e., in the end, on their not being able to acquire enough money to buy it or enough of it:

“Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat”. (p. 1, his emphasis).

“Starvation . . . is a function of entitlements and not of food availability as such” (p. 7).

Sen went on to win the so-called 1998  Nobel Prize for Economics (actually a prize awarded by the Bank of Sweden, not the Nobel Prize Committee) for  his work on famines, welfare economics and political liberalism.

Socialists recognised that Sen, in saying that famines were not caused by there not being enough food or by there being too many people, was saying something very near to what we had always said. Modern-day famines arose in the  context of the capitalist profit system under which people had to buy what they needed to live and to do this they had to have first acquired money, either by selling their ability to work for a wage or a salary or by growing and selling some cash crop. When, for whatever reason, some people find themselves unable to acquire money, they would not be able to acquire food. If this was widespread, as periodically happened in different parts of the world, then there would be a “famine”, irrespective not only of the capacity to produce enough food but even in the presence of adequate supplies of food.

Sen, however, was not a socialist, but a left liberal supporter of the capitalist market economy. Hence his solution was not to abolish a system where people’s “entitlement” to food (and everything else) depended on their having money; it was to increase such entitlements by arranging for them to have more money or at least a regular supply of money. He wanted to reform the money system not abolish it.

Socialists have no quarrel with Sen’s definition of famine, but they do challenge his definition of “poverty”. Sen defines poverty in terms of lack of access to means of consumption, to not having enough to live at some minimum level of nutrition or comfort or decency. This means that he and others who think like him have to try to fix what this minimum level is. Inevitably, the result is a more or less arbitrary definition that only applies to a minority of the population; most people not being considered poor because their income is above this low level. The “poor”, in other words, are defined in such a way that they will only ever be a minority of the population. The Christian bible may say that “the poor ye shall always have with you” – but, according to Sen and other economists, this will be only as a minority.

Marxists define poverty in terms of lack of access to means of production.  Anybody in this position is obliged to obtain their living by selling the only thing they do possess – their ability to work – to some employer. They are poor in terms of not owning means of production. Some, indeed most, may be able to obtain a monetary income above the “poverty line” defined by economists such as Sen but, being deprived of means of production, they still suffer from poverty.

It is true that, under capitalism, where “entitlement” to food, clothing, housing, etc depends on having money, there will always be some people who (through, illness, incapacity, old age, etc) can’t sell their ability to work or, because of its low quality, can’t sell it for a high enough price to cover their basic needs and so, without hand-outs from the State, would be destitute. This – destitution – is the proper term to describe their situation, not “poverty”. In the Victorian England of Marx’s day it was called “pauperism”. It is true that only a minority of the working class find themselves in this situation. But this does not mean that the rest — those in regular work — cannot be described as suffering from poverty, deprivation. In the wider, Marxian sense, if you don’t own sufficient means of production to live without having to work to obtain money then you are deprived, or poor. Which is the situation of the vast majority of people under capitalism.

As to solutions, as a self-confessed leftwing Keynesian and “welfare economist”, Sen sees the solution to “poverty and famines”  as lying in increasing the “entitlement” of “the poor” by giving them or allowing them to acquire more money. It is not difficult show why, on theoretical grounds, this would not and could not work as it goes against the whole logic of the capitalist system.

Capitalism operates by extracting surplus value — which the employing capitalist hopes to turn into money — from the working class. The monetary expression of surplus value — profit — is the lifeblood of capitalism and any attempt to tax it away risks clogging up the whole economic mechanism, thereby provoking an economic slump. Attempts to transfer money from the rich to the poor by various leftwing governments (whether Labour, Social Democratic or “Communist”) have always failed, with the leftwing government either being voted out of office or accommodating itself to having to give priority to profit-making over meeting people’s needs. The capitalist system simply cannot be made to work in the interest of the majority class of wage and salary workers. It runs on profits – extracted from the working class – and can only ever work in the interest of the profit-taking, capitalist class. The sort of reformism advocated by Sen is futile.

Under capitalism, the working class are not entitled to – have no “right” to – anything. They are only allowed to work if some employer thinks they can make a profit out of selling what they produce and, if unable to work, are only maintained by the State (out of the surplus value produced by the working class) at a level sufficient to stop them rioting or turning to crime. The solution lies not in trying to transfer money from the rich to the poor but in abolishing the money system altogether on the basis of the common ownership by the whole people of the means of production.

This would end the poverty of the working class as well as the destitution of the minority dependent, if lucky, on State hand-outs or charity. “Entitlement” to food and all the rest would not then depend on having a source of money, but simply on being human, a member of society. Everybody, not matter how little they might be able to contribute, would still be entitled to live and live as well as society can afford. In other words, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. Common ownership not class ownership. Production solely for use not production for profit. That is the only way to abolish “poverty and famines” from the face of the Earth for ever.


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