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.

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.