Starvation Politics: From Ancient Egypt to the Present

‘Food riots’ in response to huge food price hikes have hit numerous countries around the world this year. George Caffentzis explores the current food crisis, its causes and implications.

Food prices are rising so much and so fast that millions are now on the verge of starvation. Between May 2007 and May 2008, corn prices increased by 46%, wheat prices by 80%, and soybeans by 72%; while rice increased by 75% in 2008 over its average 2007 price.

People in many cities throughout the world have responded to the explosion of staple food prices in the last few months by demanding that their national governments reduce them immediately. From Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Cairo, Egypt, the demonstrations often turned into riots, shutting down these cities for days. Millions are now calculating that unless they obstruct the ‘normal’ circuit of capitalist reproduction by taking to the streets they will face starvation.

Indeed, the scenes from these places are no less dramatic in the suffering and anguish they suggest than those coming from Burma after the cyclone. The price hikes themselves have taken on the character of a natural disaster. They are treated by many commentators as a sort of ‘perfect storm,’ to use the deceptive jargon of our day. According to Steve Hamm, a Business Week journalist, a multiplicity of unrelated factors from the drought in Australia, to the “richer diets” in China and India, to “the soaring cost of oil” and “the increased use of corn for ethanol” have come together to make food unaffordable for a substantial part of the world’s population.

This explanation, however, is far from convincing. It does not explain why these millions of people are exposed to international markets and hence at risk from the ‘perfect storm’. The apparently unrelated factors listed by Hamm would not lead to widespread starvation if people were not dependent on world grain markets in a way that they were not a few decades ago.

In reality, the latest grain price hikes are the last act in a long process that started in the mid-1980s with the implementation in much of the world of the World Bank’s and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), whose first task was to privatise agricultural lands and totally commodify food production and distribution.

If we look at the policies that governments across the world, but especially in the South, were forced to adopt in the name of the ‘debt crisis’ or ‘economic development’ we see that each of the recommended policies was geared to raise people’s dependence on the world market for access to food:

• government subsidies for agricultural inputs (from fertilisers to seeds) were eliminated, as were price control and marketing boards;

• land privatisation was instituted with drives to titling and registration;

• large amounts of acreage were removed from local food production and devoted to mining, oil extraction, or the production non-edible or export crops;

• most important, violating a long tradition, the World Bank and IMF insisted that governments in the South dismantle their food reserves and put them on the market, arguing they were no longer needed in a global economy.

Not surprisingly, countries that in the past had always been self-sufficient as far as food production was concerned were by the end of the millennium net food importers. A good example of this dynamic is the case of Mexico and corn. Millions of corn-growing peasant farmers have been driven from their ejidos(inalienable land held in common or by families) over the last decade due to their inability to compete with US corn exported to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a model neoliberal trade treaty. As a result, Mexicans are now dependent on corn imports from the US for the provision of their basic staple food at a moment when corn prices are soaring.

Once this history is understood, no one can see the price hikes as in any way caused by a surprising conjuncture of unrelated factors. For the crucial question to be posed both logically and politically is: Why is it that billions of people are now dependent on an international grain market that literally condemns them to death? For if they were not so dependent, then the storm in the international grain exchanges, however perfect, would have passed by without hurting many. Far from being natural, this dependence has been constructed step-by-step, policy-by-policy despite a long series of oppositional demonstrations, general strikes, and rebellions throughout the world, and the criticism of anti-globalisation scholars.

Capitalist planners’ obstinate attachment to this strategy is not hard to decipher, for it is at the heart of the neoliberal agenda that strives to:

• establish international capital’s ever tighter control of all natural resources, especially staple food stocks, which constitute a formidable weapon, already used throughout history to impose discipline over recalcitrant workers and reward compliant governments;

• eliminate populations not considered productive;

• reduce the real wage everywhere.

In sum, these price hikes are the dénouement of a long war on the people of the planet to eliminate the most elementary right: the right to eat to live.

This is not a new strategy discovered by geniuses like Larry Summers on H Street in Washington. In fact, as the novelist Sol Yurick writes in his forthcoming autobiography, Revenge, the biblical Joseph was the archetype for the IMF/World Bank officials of today. Joseph, as financial advisor to the Pharaoh, recognised a cycle of seven “good years” and seven “lean years.” He cornered the market by hoarding the grain in the good years and was able to use the stored grain in the lean years both to sell at an exorbitant price and to buy the peasants’ land cheaply in the face of their imminent starvation. What is important to note about this story is that Joseph and the Pharaoh were not ‘middlemen’ interested in the money they made in selling the hoarded grain; they were using their control of grain to enslave Egyptian workers and to appropriate their land.

What is to be done to prevent a repetition of this ancient tale? Across the world people are rioting in desperation, as they often did in response to the introduction of SAPs. The pace of these riots and rebellions will increase, since for most people the affordability of food is a question of life and death. These uprisings might bring some restraint in the grain markets and cause governments to bend the neoliberal rules by providing more subsidies.

However, a reversal of the trend towards increasing dependence of people on the world grain market for accessing their staple food will require the strengthening of the already existing long-term international movement of both farmers and city dwellers committed to restoring land to the people producing food for their localities. The hunger generated by the food price hikes on the world market, which was meant to breed docility, will give this movement a tremendous impetus.

George Caffentzis is a member of the Midnight Notes Collective and co-editor of Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992 and Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War.


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