The political economy of hunger

The political economy of hunger

Why is there hunger? It’s nothing to do with a lack of food.

So far in our series on the relationship between climate, class society, and food, we’ve focused on historical investigation. This has lead us to look at the emergence of agriculture after the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago, and the early modern origins of capitalist agriculture during the little ice age of 1550-1850.

We intend to continue these historical investigations up to the present day, to enable some informed speculation about the future of food production in the context of global warming and climate chaos. However, first we want to ask a more basic question. Why do people go hungry?

Common sense: absolute scarcity?

The intuitive answer to this question is that there must be a lack of food. This explanation comes in two flavours. Chronic hunger is typically explained by the Malthusian argument that population growth perennially outstrips food production. Acute hunger, such as famines, is typically explained in terms of Food Availability Decline, such as crop failures due to drought.

Malthus’ argument, which underpins Garrett Hardin’s reactionary ecology, is a simple one. Malthus (1776-1834) claimed that that population grows ‘geometrically’ (exponentially), whereas food production grows ‘arithmetically’ (linearly). Therefore the population will always grow faster than the food supply, and chronic hunger will be ever-present. Malthus was motivated by politics, particularly opposition to the English Poor Laws. He also just made it up. Geographer Danny Dorling writes:

He was not just wrong because he lacked imagination; he also cheated. It is now known that the even made up the correlation he used to try to suggest causation.1

However, Malthus’ argument continues to be cited as if it’s self-evident in both everyday conversations and scholarly works (though the experts have no excuse).2 “If it had not been Malthus”, Dorling continues, “it would have been some other fool”. A similar assumption of absolute scarcity informs the Food Availability Decline (FAD) approach, which was debunked by economist Amartya Sen in his hugely influential 1981 essay on poverty and famines.

Sen took several major famines as his case studies, and found the FAD approach was unable to explain why people went hungry, but also who went hungry. The Bengal Famine of 1943 claimed 1.5 million lives. Yet food production was only marginally below the previous year, and in fact higher than other years which had not seen famine. The Ethiopian famines of 1972-74 also saw only single-digit declines in food production, too small to account for the 50-200,000 deaths. In the 1974 Bangladesh famine, food availability actually hit a four-year per capita high. In the Sahelian famine which peaked in 1973, drought did lead to significant declines in food availability, but Sen argued this fact alone could not explain who went hungry and where.

Sen’s entitlement approach

Amartya Sen developed a new theory to explain famines in terms of ‘entitlements’. In a monetary economy, money entitles the owner to commodities of equal price. A rise in food prices, a decline in income, or an exhaustion of savings could all lead to an ‘entitlement failure’ and hunger, that is, insufficient money to buy sufficient food. But the reason Sen talks in terms of entitlement rather than money is that not all food entitlements are monetary. Sharecroppers or peasant farmers may be entitled to consume (a portion of) their own production without market mediation. Pastoral nomads may similarly possess food entitlements outside of the monetary economy, as may recipients of food stamps or similar welfare measures.

It is sometimes said that starvation may be caused not by food shortage but by the shortage of income and purchasing power. This can be seen as a rudimentary way of trying to catch the essence of the entitlement approach, since income does give one entitlement to food in a market economy. While income may not always provide command [food] in a fully planned economy, or in a ‘shortage economy’, in which a different system of entitlement might hold, the income-centred view will be relevant in most circumstances in which famines have occurred.3

It is important to note that Sen does not deny that decline in available food can be a factor in increasing hunger. He only claims that this is mediated by entitlements, that is, social relations. Indeed, Sen claims that “food being exported from famine-stricken areas may be a ‘natural’ characteristic of the market which respects entitlement rather than needs”4. Hence geographer Mike Davis, based on his own studies of Victorian-era famines, concludes that “the great hungers have always been redistributive class struggles.”5

The absolute scarcity approach employs fallacious reasoning: because an absolute scarcity of food implies hunger, absolute scarcity is wrongly inferred from the existence of hunger. This reasoning itself betrays a naive assumption: that food is produced for use. However, with the near-global spread of enclosures and colonisation, a large and growing proportion of agricultural production is commodity production - production for the market. Commodity production is not motivated by the use to which commodities are put, but the prices they can fetch. If biodiesel or beef fetches a sufficiently high price, agricultural land is switched to feeding cars or cows while millions of human beings go hungry. Hence to quote the opening lines of Sen’s essay:

Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.6

The political economy of hunger

The fact there’s enough food to feed everyone has slowly been acknowledged amongst the ruling institutions. For instance the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states clearly that:

There is sufficient capacity in the world to produce enough food to feed everyone adequately; nevertheless, in spite of progress made over the last two decades, 805 million people still suffer from chronic hunger.7

However, Sen’s stress on the mode of production, forms of property, and class relations has been replaced by a technocratic approach to this “challenge” which sees it simply as a matter of policy. ‘Food availability’ is still the first term on the FAO’s list of dimensions of hunger. And while between a third and a half of world food production is currently wasted, the World Bank, like Malthus, invokes a growing population to emphasise raising agricultural productivity. There’s nothing wrong in principle with increasing agricultural productivity, indeed, more output for less inputs seems like a good idea, but this can often be a euphemism for land-grabs.8

These new enclosures dispossess and proletarianise the rural population, making them dependent on the market for food. In other words, while Sen’s insights are formally acknowledged, the policy emphasis quickly regresses to the familiar capitalist one of increasing output, increasing productivity, and the development of markets in farm-related financial services, fertilisers, and machinery. Hunger is treated as if it were principally a problem of food availability, even though this is acknowledged not to be the case. To understand why this is, we need to turn to the economic historian Karl Polanyi.

Polanyi was interested in ‘the great transformation’: the rise of the market society, capitalism. Like Karl Marx before him, Polanyi identified the separation of the population from the land as the key factor in the transformation of markets from a relatively fringe phenomenon for most people to the central institutions governing social reproduction.

The first stage was the commercialisation of the soil, mobilising the feudal revenue of the land. The second was the forcing up of the production of food and organic raw materials to serve the needs of a rapidly growing industrial population on a national scale. The third was the extension of such a system of surplus production to overseas and colonial territories. With this last step land and its produce were finally fitted into the scheme of a self-regulating world market.9

Polanyi gets the chronology slightly wrong - colonial production preceded and helped finance the industrial revolution. James Watt’s engine was funded by profits from the West Indies slave plantations.10 But more importantly for the matter at hand, Polanyi goes on to stress the necessity of hunger for a functioning labour market:

The critical stage was reached with the establishment of a labour market in England, in which workers were put under the threat of starvation if they failed to comply with the rules of wage labour. As soon as this drastic step was taken, the mechanism of the self-regulating market sprang into gear.11

Hunger is not, therefore, an incidental problem in capitalism but a condition of its possibility. This process of proletarianisation created the category of the unemployed, which superseded that of the pauper. Polanyi continues to argue that unless the unemployed were “in danger of famishing with only the abhorred workhouse for an alternative, the wage system would break down.”12 For this reason, Polanyi thought that the post-WWII welfare state and the Keynesian policy of full employment had, in minimising the threat of hunger, superseded the market society. But social democracy turned out to be an unstable compromise between capitalism and something else. Workers revolted, and following the crisis of the 1970s the capitalists responded with a renewed round of economic liberalism.

The return of rickets, food banks and the workhouse (in the guise of workfare) can therefore be seen as a return to capitalist normality.13 Capitalism needs to maintain this artificial scarcity of food to underwrite the labour market. Climate change is likely to damage crop yields and reduce available agricultural land through desertification, salination of coastal aquifers and flooding from sea level rises and changing precipitation patterns.14 But food availability is always mediated by social relations. As Rolando Garcia puts it, “climatic facts are not facts in themselves; they assume importance only in relation to the restructuring of the environment within different systems of production.”15

Discussions of world hunger almost invariably assume that food production is and will continue to be commodity production, whilst simultaneously assuming that food is produced for use. But whatever climate change has to throw at us, there is always a gap between what is possible and what is possible in capitalism. All other things held equal, declining crop yields and loss of arable land can be expected to increase world hunger. But all other things need not be held equal. The social relations through which biophysical forces are organised are not themselves laws of nature: they are subject to change. This is the revolutionary possibility that Malthusian mythology serves to obscure.

  • 1. Danny Dorling, Population 10 Billion, p.111.
  • 2. For instance, David Cleveland, professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, states bluntly that “over the longer term Malthus was right. His fundamental observation seems incontrovertible” (original emphasis). This quote comes from his otherwise somewhat critical book ‘Balancing on a planet: the future of food and agriculture’ (p.26).
  • 3. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, p.155. Original emphasis.
  • 4. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, p.162
  • 5. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, p.20.
  • 6. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, p.1.
  • 7. http://www.fao.org/about/what-we-do/so1/en/
  • 8. See Stefano Liberti, Land grabbing: journeys in the new colonialism. Silvia Federici and Glen Coulthard are among those who have theorised primitive accumulation as an ongoing process, and not a completed historical episode.
  • 9. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p.188.
  • 10. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, p.102.
  • 11. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p.225.
  • 12. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p.232.
  • 13. On rickets, see: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/30/child-poverty-link-malnutrition-rickets
  • 14. We will discuss the future of food under various climate change scenarios in future articles, once we’ve brought our historical look at capitalism and agriculture up to the present day.
  • 15. Quoted in Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, p.19.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Nov 17 2014 19:03

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  • Capitalism needs to maintain an artificial scarcity of food to underwrite the labour market. Climate change is likely to damage crop yields and reduce available agricultural land - but food availability is always mediated by social relations.

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Comments

Steven.
Nov 19 2014 11:38

Another great article, thanks guys

k-zen
Nov 19 2014 13:33

Good article... Very interesting indeed.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 20 2014 13:37

Yeah, I think that was my favorite one yet. Well done.

pingtiao
Nov 23 2014 07:54

That was an excellent article, many thanks.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 24 2014 15:01

I don't know, no class, I think you might be being a bit harsh on Marx.

So, for example, "progressive" in the Marxian sense is radically different from the standard use in the term. And, in any case, the final section of Capital explicitly draws the link between colonialism and the genesis of capital.

Of course most "Marxists" are shit, but I'd say Out of the Woods - and this article in particular - take a very Marxist approach to history.

I mean, there's lots to be criticized in Marx, but I think it's worth reading Marx on his own terms because - regardless of all that's been done and said in his name - there's a lot of worthwhile stuff in there.

Steven.
Nov 24 2014 18:42
noclass wrote:
Thanks, I like the article. I didn't know that industrial revolution was financed by colonization and slave work. Marxists told me that industrialization became a reality because capitalists were progressive!!! They put that wrong idea in my mind and I carried it for a while. It was great relief after I got rid of Marxism in my communism, now I can connect dots a lot better.

yeah, I would agree with chilli sauce. Marx is pretty good at describing the brutality of primitive accumulation that set the stage for the development of industrial capitalism, for example in chapter 27 of Capital volume 1.

jojo
Nov 25 2014 02:24
Quote:
Discussions of world hunger almost invariably assume that food production is and will continue to be commodity production, whilst simultaneously assuming that food is produced for use. But whatever climate change has to throw at us, there is always a gap between what is possible and what is possible in capitalism.

This gap between "what is possible and what is possible in capitalism" which the bourgeoisie either can't see, or choose to ignore, and go on pretending there's no such a thing, is like a kind of political schizophrenia. They simultaneously assume food is both produced to sell and to satisfy hunger. Why can't they see the contradiction? Do they implicitly know that this contradiction can't be solved under capitalism? Do they think that those who can't afford to buy food deserve all they don't get because they won't work? Or do they think that its divine providence that imposes the requirement for increasing numbers of people to be rendered unemployed and thus suffer the additional punishment of starvation? Does political schizophrenia, essential to supporters of capitalism, blur all contradictions and make them acceptable?

Chilli Sauce
Nov 25 2014 15:44

Fair enough.

The Garbage Dis...
Nov 25 2014 18:34

Hey Out of the Woods folk!
I'm loosely involved with a university food co-op/anti-capitalist organization, and this article feels highly relevant to the work we do. I was wondering if you'd be alright with me reformatting it as a pamphlet, adding a glossary, adding a few more explanatory notes, etc. and distributing it. Shoot me an email and let me know / we can talk details?

Thanks!

Out of the Woods
Nov 25 2014 18:56

@ The Garbage Disposal Unit

We don't have a group email, but if you use the libcom private messages we can discuss and reply. Everything we write is written to be useful, and libcom content is creative commons attribution noncommercial share-alike by default. So please feel free to use/expand it.

OOTW

jojo
Nov 26 2014 01:48

No class said:

Quote:
The best word for describing my attitude toward Marxism is not "harsh", it is the English word: serious. I do not see any reason not to be serious against Marxism after many crimes they have been committed against humanity by forming repressive states.

Correction noclass. Marxism has never formed any states anywhere, and has never committed any crimes against humanity. Marxism is the proletarian theory of revolution derived from the practice and struggles of the working class to emancipate itself from capitalism.

That the left wing bourgeoisie has seen fit to set up leftist capitalist states like China, Cuba, North Korea and the former USSR (which emerged out of the failure of the communist revolution, not its success!) and all in the name of marxism is not something you can seriously and legitimately hold Marx responsible for.

It is naive not to be able to understand and appreciate the political differences between what capitalism does in the name of Marx - forming repressive states ( but notice also that non-Marxist states like the US the UK and so on are also repressive!) and what the working class tries to do in its battle for emancipation from all forms of cspitalism, including those that call themselves Marxist.

When the working class finally topples capitalism and builds communism (or you might prefer to call it "anarchism"?) all repression, including the state, will have been abolished.

Caiman del Barrio
Nov 29 2014 15:13

Was reminded of this article by this distinctly unsavoury attempt to dramatically reduce immigration to Switzerland by dressing it up as an environmentalist issue: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30195633

Tyrion
Dec 2 2014 04:34
noclass wrote:
Thanks, I like the article. I didn't know that industrial revolution was financed by colonization and slave work. Marxists told me that industrialization became a reality because capitalists were progressive!!! They put that wrong idea in my mind and I carried it for a while. It was great relief after I got rid of Marxism in my communism, now I can connect dots a lot better.

These Marxists aren't too familiar with Marx, then.

Karl Marx wrote:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black-skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

Marx was well aware of the role of colonization and slavery in the emergence of capitalism. Marx's description of capitalism as "progressive" is not what you seem to be implying; rather, capitalism was "progressive" in the sense that the changes to the production process allowed more material needs and desires to be met than was possible through feudal production and made "to each according to their need" an actual possibility (should the hindrance of capitalist social relations be abolished, that is).

jojo
Dec 3 2014 02:06

Looking round the planet at the present moment it's very difficult to think that capitalism has ever been "progressive". There's all the wars, the hunger, the austerity, the misery and negative destruction everywhere. But there are also improvements to life like better health care ( if you have access to it) better social services (if they haven't been slashed in your area) schooling for all (it may be lousy education, but has to be better than nothing) a minimum of handouts for those who've really been shoved down to society's rock bottom (just a sop to try and keep them quiet) and old age pensions (providing barely enough to stop you from dying in a way that might embarrass the "caring society" - as Cameron once called it) and so on. It may not seem like much because it isn't much, and all it does is try and substitute paltry "handouts" from the coffers of the rich and powerful, to those on whose work they depend and thrive. Such is the generosity of the capitalist class. But it has to be some kind of improvement on what took place under feudalism and slavery.

However, the greatest plus of all is that the huge developments capitalism has brought about in science and technology - in the pursuit of profit of course - will make it possible, when we release these technological marvels and advancements from the shackles of the all-enslaving capitalist system, to build the new world society of health and prosperity for all. A society where everyone will develop their talents and abilities; everyone will get the love and nourishment they deserve and war and competitiveness will be relics of a transitional capitalist era of incredible cruelty.

Caiman del Barrio
Dec 3 2014 10:16
jojo wrote:
Looking round the planet at the present moment it's very difficult to think that capitalism has ever been "progressive". There's all the wars, the hunger, the austerity, the misery and negative destruction everywhere. But there are also improvements to life like better health care ( if you have access to it) better social services (if they haven't been slashed in your area) schooling for all (it may be lousy education, but has to be better than nothing) a minimum of handouts for those who've really been shoved down to society's rock bottom (just a sop to try and keep them quiet) and old age pensions (providing barely enough to stop you from dying in a way that might embarrass the "caring society" - as Cameron once called it) and so on. It may not seem like much because it isn't much, and all it does is try and substitute paltry "handouts" from the coffers of the rich and powerful, to those on whose work they depend and thrive. Such is the generosity of the capitalist class. But it has to be some kind of improvement on what took place under feudalism and slavery.

This is a contentious statement, which is at odds with the experience of many many people, especially in the developing world, who have consistently resisted the encroachment of capitalism - or indeed, its consolidation - in favour of some sort of lifestyle that could be comparable to feudalism (I guess?), hunter-gatherer or 'primitive communism'. The notion that capitalism is 'progressive' is used to justify all sorts of atrocities and inequalities as much by the left as the right: note support for all sorts of bourgeois nationalist/'anti-imperialist' leaders across Latin America, and Africa before that, who are to be lauded for meagre developmental projects fashioned from the crumbs and leftovers of the vultures' feast of capitalist exploitation/extraction. It's also used to undermine the worth of struggles such as the EZLN and other indigenous groups, who are seemingly supposed to just roll over and accept capitalism in order to then overthrow it (a counter-intuitive proposal, laden with Eurocentrism and denying agency to the militants).

Sam Mbah (RIP) effectively counters this in "African Anarchism", IMO.

jojo
Dec 6 2014 02:18

Brief reply to noclass and Caiman del Barrio.

I didn't suggest that capitalism was an improvement on hunter gatherering and primitive communism, which weren't exploitative systems, but that it might well be on feudalism if only for the technical developments capitalism has brought about.

Nor did I suggest that capitalism was progressive in terms of human relations, where actually it stinks. But it has produced an enormous development in the productive forces themselves (at a terrible cost to suffering humanity and specially the working class) such that these productive forces in the hands of a triumphant proletariat, and put to use for human purposes, not profit making, could solve many of our current problems. These highly developed productive forces could be focussed on feeding everyone on the planet, providing free health care and education for everyone alive, and even make a late but serious attempt to counteract global warming.

We couldn't have got to communism straight out of feudalism. But capitalism (ghastly and horrific as it has been and still is ) has provided the jumping off point needed to get to communism (or anarchism) today, and the time is ripe now.

Tyrion
Dec 6 2014 13:41
noclass wrote:
This idea that capitalism has created a situation that communism becomes a real possibility is an illusion - development of forces of production - not a scientific idea, at best it is a hypothesis, but now we know that development of forces of production can actually become extremely dangerous for human society.

This is very idealist and I think feeds into primitivist notions. A significant proportion of the world's population would die if the productive capacity of humanity was still what it was in pre-capitalist times. I'm doubtful that capitalist social relations were necessary for the development of productive forces that have made possible a communism of abundance rather than the communism of scarcity supposedly practiced by hunter-gatherer communities. However, it's clear enough that the way that history has played out has been that capitalism has indeed historically played the role of a driver of the development of humanity's ability to produce more food, housing, and so on. This is the meaning of the term "progressive" in Marx's writings, it's not a moral judgement or anything similar to that.

Khawaga
Dec 6 2014 04:39
noclass wrote:
This idea that capitalism has created a situation that communism becomes a real possibility is an illusion - development of forces of production - not a scientific idea, at best it is a hypothesis, but now we know that development of forces of production can actually become extremely dangerous for human society.

It's as if capitalism is a contradiction! Who would have known?

keest
Dec 20 2014 13:55

Thanks for writing this, we have translated it int Dutch and posted it here:
http://www.globalinfo.nl/Achtergrond/de-politieke-economie-van-honger.ht...

Out of the Woods
Dec 20 2014 15:54
keest wrote:
Thanks for writing this, we have translated it int Dutch and posted it here:
http://www.globalinfo.nl/Achtergrond/de-politieke-economie-van-honger.ht...

thanks!

Soapy
Jan 25 2016 19:29

bam bam bam, point after point well made