Food crisis, hunger riots: Only the proletarian class struggle can put an end to famine

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In International Review n° 132 we looked at the development of workers' struggles which have been breaking out simultaneously all over the world in response to the worsening economic crisis and the growing attacks on proletarian living standards. The latest convulsions of the world economy, the scourge of inflation and the food crisis, can only further aggravate the poverty of the most poverty-stricken social layers in the peripheries of capitalism. This situation, which reveals the impasse reached by the capitalist system, has provoked hunger riots in numerous countries, at the same time as workers' struggles for wage increases, above all in response to the spiralling cost of basic foodstuffs. With the deepening crisis, hunger riots and workers' struggles can only become more and more general and simultaneous. These revolts against poverty are products of the same thing: the crisis of capitalist society, its inability to offer humanity any future and even to ensure the immediate survival of a significant part of it. However, they do not both contain the same potential. Only the struggle of the proletariat on its own class terrain can put an end to poverty and generalised famine by overthrowing capitalism and creating a new society without poverty, hunger and war.

The food crisis shows the bankruptcy of capitalism

The common denominator of the hunger riots which since the beginning of the year have exploded virtually all over the world is the surge in the price of foodstuffs or their desperate scarcity, which have struck the poor and working populations of numerous countries. To give a few particularly clear figures, the price of maize has quadrupled since summer 2007, the price of grain has doubled since the beginning of 2008, and in general food prices have increased by 60% in two years in the poorer countries. It is a sign of the times that the devastating effects of the 30-50% increase in food prices at a world level have violently affected not only the populations of the poor countries but also those of the "rich" ones. Thus, for example, in the USA, the world's leading economic power, 28 million Americans could no longer survive without the food distribution programmes run by municipal and federal authorities.

At this very moment, 100,000 people are dying of hunger every day across the world; a child under 10 is dying every five seconds; 842 million people are suffering from chronic malnutrition and are being reduced to the status of invalids. And right now, two out of the six billion human beings of the planet (i.e. one third of humanity) are in a daily fight for survival because of the rise in the cost of basic foodstuffs.

The experts of the bourgeoisie  - the IMF, the FAO, the UN, the G8 etc - have announced that such a state of affairs is only temporary, when in fact it is not only becoming chronic but is due to get worse, with the dizzying increase in the price of basic necessities and their growing scarcity across the planet. At a time when the productive capacities of the planet would make it possible to feed 12 billion human beings, millions and millions are dying of hunger because of the laws of capitalism, the system that dominates the world: a system of production aimed not at satisfying human need but at generating profit; a system totally incapable of responding to the needs of humanity. Furthermore, all the explanations of the current food crisis we are being given converge in the same direction, pointing to the method of production that obeys blind and irrational laws:

1. The surge in oil prices which is increasing the cost of transporting food etc. This phenomenon is indeed an aberration typical of the system, not a factor external to it.

2. The significant growth in the demand for food, the result of a certain increase in the buying power and of the new eating habits of the middle classes in the "emerging" countries like India and China. If there is an ounce of truth in this explanation, it is a significant mark of the real nature of an "economic progress" that increases the consuming power of some only to condemn millions of others to die of hunger because of the resulting penury on the world market

3. Frenzied speculation on agricultural products. This is also a pure product of the system and its economic weight is all the more important given that the real economy is prospering less and less. Some examples: cereal stocks are the lowest they have been for thirty years, and speculation mania is more and more focused on foodstuffs in the hope of finding some good investments at a time when there's nothing to be gained in the property market. At the Chicago Stock exchange, "the volume of contracts being exchanged over soya, grain, maize, beef, pork and even living cattle" (Le Figaro, 15/4/08) went up by 20% in the course of the first three months of this year.

4. The growing market in biofuels, spurred on by the rising cost of oil and which is also the object of frenzied speculation. This new source of profit is at the root of the explosion of this kind of cultivation at the expense of food crops. Numerous countries that produce basic necessities have turned whole swathes of their agricultural economy over to biofuel production, on the pretext of fighting against the greenhouse effect. This has drastically decreased the production of basic necessities and dramatically increased their cost. This is the case with Congo Brazzaville which is extensively developing sugar cane for biofuels when its population is sinking into hunger. In Brazil, where 30% of the population live below the poverty line and have great difficulty feeding themselves, agricultural policy is increasingly geared towards biofuel production.

5. Trade war and protectionism, which are also characteristic of capitalism, when imposed on the agricultural sector, mean that the most productive forms of agriculture in the industrialised countries, often thanks to government subsidies, are exporting an important part of their produce to the countries of the "Third World",[1] thus ruining the peasantry of these regions, and rendering them incapable of meeting the food needs of the local population. In Africa, for example, many local farmers have been ruined by European exports of chicken and beef. Mexico can no longer produce enough basic necessities to feed its population, so that it now has to import 10 billion dollars worth of foodstuffs.    

6. The irresponsible use of the planet's resources, driven by the hunt for immediate profit, is leading to their exhaustion. The over-utilisation of fertilisers damages the balance of the soil, so that the International Rice Research Institute foresees a threat to rice production in Asia in the medium term. Unrestrained fishing in the oceans is leading to a dearth of many species of edible fish. 

7. As for the consequences of the warming of the planet, in particular floods and droughts, they are rightly pointed to as reasons for the fall in production in certain cultivable areas. But this too in the last instance is the result of the effects that capitalist industrialisation has had on the environment, at the expense of the immediate and the long term needs of humanity. Thus, the recent heat waves in Australia have led to severe damage and a significant drop in agricultural production. And the worst is in front of us since according to calculations a one degree Celsius rise in temperature will result in a 10% fall in the production of rice, grain and maize. Initial researches indicate that an increase in temperature will threaten the survival of many animal and plant species and will reduce the nutritional value of many plants.

Famine is not the only consequence of the aberrant way capitalism exploits the earth's resources. Thus, the production of biofuels leads to the exhaustion of cultivable land. Furthermore, this "juicy" market leads to crazy and anti-natural behaviour: in the Rocky Mountains, in the USA, where growers have already devoted 30% of their maize crop to the manufacture of ethanol, the gigantic investment in the production of "energy" maize in soils unsuitable for it leads to an incredible waste of fertiliser and water for very poor results. Jean Ziegler explains: "To produce a full 50 litre tank of ethanol, you have to burn 232 kilos of maize"; and to produce a kilo of maize, you need 1000 litres of water! According to recent studies, not only is the "pollution" balance sheet for biofuels negative (recent research shows that it produces more air pollution than normal fuel), but their global ecological and economic consequences are disastrous for the whole of humanity. What's more, in many regions of the world, the soil is increasingly polluted or even totally poisoned. This is the case for 10% of Chinese soil; this is a country where every year 120,000 peasants die from cancers linked to the pollution of the soil.

All the explanations given us about the food crisis contain a small element of truth. But none of them itself constitutes an explanation. When it comes to the limits of its system, above all when this expresses itself in the form of an open crisis, the bourgeoisie has no choice but to lie to the exploited, who are the first to suffer its consequences, in order to hide the necessarily transitory nature of capitalism, as with all previous systems of exploitation. To a certain extent it is also forced to lie to itself as a social class, to avoid having to face the fact that its reign has been condemned by history. What is so striking today is the contrast between the bourgeoisie's assurances and its inability to make any credible response to the food crisis.

The different explanations and solutions proposed - apart from their cynical and hypocritical character - all correspond to the immediate interests of this or that fraction of the ruling class to the detriment of others. Some examples: at the last summit of the G8 the main leaders of the world invited the representatives of the poor countries to react to the hunger revolts by proposing an immediate cut in customs' duties on agricultural imports. In other words, the first thought of the spokesmen of the great capitalist democracies is to take advantage of the crisis by increasing their own export opportunities! The European industrial lobby made a fuss over the agricultural protectionism of the European Union being responsible, among other things, for ruining subsistence agriculture in the "Third World". And why? Feeling threatened by competition from Asian industry, it wants to reduce agricultural subsidies in the EU as being above its means. As for the agricultural lobby, it sees the hunger revolts as proof of the need to increase the same subsidies. The EU seized on the occasion to condemn the orientation of agricultural production towards "renewable energy"...in Brazil, one of its main rivals in this sector.        

Capitalism has, like no other previous system, developed the productive forces to the point where it would be possible to establish a society where all human needs would be met. However, the enormous forces it has set in motion, as long as they are imprisoned by the laws of capital, not only cannot be used for the benefit of the great majority, but actually turn against it: "In the most advanced industrial countries we have subdued the forces of nature and pressed them into the service of mankind; we have thereby infinitely multiplied production, so that a child now produces more than a hundred adults previously did. And what is the result? Increasing overwork and increasing misery of the masses...Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planed way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for mankind in the specifically biological aspect".[2] Since capitalism entered its phase of decline, not only does the wealth it produces not contribute to the liberation of the human species from the reign of necessity, but it threatens its very existence. Thus, a new danger now threatens humanity: generalised famine, which only recently was being dismissed as a nightmare of the past. In fact, as illustrated by the warming of the planet, since all productive activity - including the production of food - is subjected to the blind laws of capital, it is the very basis of life on earth that is being put into question, above all through the squandering of its resources,

The difference between hunger riots and the riots in the suburbs

It is the most impoverished masses of the "Third World" who are being hit by abject scarcity. The looting of shops is a perfectly legitimate reaction faced with an unbearable situation where the survival of yourself and your family is at stake. In this sense, the hunger riots, even when they provoke destruction and violence, should not be put at the same level as the urban riots (like that in Brixton in Britain in 1981 and those in the French suburbs in 2005) or race riots (like those in Los Angeles in 1992).[3]

Although they also trouble "public order" and result in material damage, the latter, in the final analysis, only serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, which is perfectly capable of turning them not only against the rioters themselves but also against the whole of the working class. In particular, these manifestations of desperate violence  (in which elements of the lumpen-proletariat are often involved) always provide the ruling class with the opportunity to strengthen its apparatus of repression through increasing police patrols of the poorest areas where working class families live.

These types of riot are a pure product of the decomposition of the capitalist system. They are an expression of the despair and feelings of "no future" that it engenders and this is expressed in their totally absurd character. This was the case for example with the riots which blazed across the French suburbs in 2005 when the young people didn't unleash their actions in the rich neighbourhoods inhabited by their exploiters but in their own neighbourhoods which became even more difficult to live in as a result. The fact that it was their own families or neighbours who were the main victims of their depredations reveals the blind, desperate and suicidal character of these riots. It was the cars of workers living in the neighbourhoods that were burned, or the schools and colleges attended by their brothers and sisters or the children of their neighbours which were destroyed. And precisely because of the absurdity of these riots the bourgeoisie was able to make use of them and turn them against the working class. Their massive exposure in the media enabled the ruling class to make as many workers as possible see the young rioters not as victims of capitalism in crisis, but as "thugs". Apart from the fact that these riots made it possible to step up a witch hunt of immigrant youth, they undermined any possibility of solidarity among the working class towards these young people excluded from production, deprived of any perspective for the future and subjected to the permanent pressure of police harassment. 

For their part, the hunger riots are first and foremost an expression of the bankruptcy of the capitalist economy and of the irrationality of its system of production. This is now taking the form of a food crisis which is hitting not only the most disenfranchised layers in the "poor" countries, but more and more wage workers, including those in the so-called "developed" countries. It's not by chance that the majority of workers' struggles developing today all over the planet put forward wage rises as their key demand. Galloping inflation, the spiral in the price of basic necessities, the fall in real wages and of retirement pensions eaten away by inflation, the precariousness of employment and the waves of redundancies - these are all manifestations of the crisis and contain all the ingredients for ensuring that the question of hunger, of the struggle for survival, is more and more being posed within the working class. Already several inquiries have shown that the supermarkets and high streets where workers do their shopping are less and less able to sell their products and are being forced to reduce their orders.

And it is precisely because the question of the food crisis is already hitting the workers of the "poor" countries (and will more and more affect those in the central countries) that the bourgeoisie will have the greatest difficulty in exploiting the hunger riots against the proletarian class struggle. Generalised want and famine - here is the future that capitalism has in store for the whole of humanity and this future is being highlighted by the hunger riots which have broken out recently in a number of countries.      

Obviously, these riots are also reactions of despair by the most impoverished masses of the "poor" countries, and in themselves they do not contain any perspective for the overthrow of capitalism. But unlike the urban and racial riots, hunger riots are a concentrated form of all the absolute misery which capitalism is imposing on ever larger portions of humanity. They show the fate that awaits the whole working class if this mode of production is not overthrown. In this sense, they contribute to the process through which the proletariat becomes aware of the irredeemable bankruptcy of the capitalist economy. Finally, they show the cynicism and ferocity with which the ruling class responds to explosions of anger by those who loot shops to avoid dying of hunger: repression, tear gas, truncheons and machine guns.

What's more, unlike the riots in the suburbs, these riots are not a factor of division in the working class. On the contrary, despite the violence and destruction that may be involved in them, hunger riots tend to give rise to spontaneous feelings of solidarity on the part of the workers, given that they are among the first to be affected by the food crisis and are finding it harder and harder to feed their families. In this sense, the hunger riots are much more difficult for the bourgeoisie to exploit by setting workers against each other or creating divisions within the poorer neighbourhoods.

Faced with hunger riots, only the workers' struggle can offer a perspective

Even so, although in the "poor" countries we are seeing a simultaneous development of hunger riots and workers' struggles against capitalist misery, these are two parallel movements of a very different nature.

Even if workers may be led to participate in hunger riots by pillaging shops, this is not the terrain of the class struggle. It is a terrain in which the proletariat is inevitably drowned amidst other "popular" strata, the poorest and most marginalised. In this kind of movement, the proletariat can only lose its class autonomy and abandon its own methods of struggle: strikes, demonstrations, general assemblies.

Moreover, hunger riots are only a flash in the pan, a revolt that has no tomorrow and which can in no way solve the problem of famine. They are no more than an immediate and desperate reaction to the most absolute misery. Once the shops have been emptied by looting, there's nothing left, whereas the wage rises that result from workers' struggles can be maintained for longer (even if they will eventually be overtaken). It is obvious that in the face of the famine now hitting the populations of the countries at the periphery of capitalism, the working class cannot remain indifferent; all the more so because in these countries the workers themselves are being hit by the food crisis and are finding it increasingly difficult to feed their families on their miserable wages.

The present manifestations of the bankruptcy of capitalism, in particular the surge in prices and the food crisis, will more and more tend to level downwards the living conditions of the proletariat and the most impoverished masses. Because of this, workers' struggles in the "poor" countries can only multiply at the same time as the hunger riots. But while hunger riots don't offer any perspective, workers' struggles are the starting point for the workers to develop their strength and their own perspective. The only way for the proletariat to resist the increasingly violent attacks of capital is to preserve its class autonomy and develop its own struggles and solidarity. In general assemblies and massive demonstrations it needs to put forward demands that are common to all and integrate solidarity with the famished masses. In these demands, workers must not only demand wage rises and cuts in the price of basic foodstuffs: their platform of demands should also include free distribution of the vital minimum for the most deprived, the unemployed and those who have no way of earning a living.

It's only by developing its own methods of struggle and strengthening its class solidarity with the oppressed and famished masses that the proletariat can rally behind it the non-exploiting strata of society.

Capitalism has no perspective to offer humanity except increasingly barbaric wars, increasingly tragic catastrophes, and growing poverty for the great majority of the world population. The only possibility for society to get out of the barbarism of the present world is the overthrow of the capitalist system. And the only force capable of doing this is the world working class. It is because, up till now, the working class has not found the strength to affirm this perspective through the massive development and extension of its struggles, that growing masses of the population in the "Third World" have been forced to engage in desperate hunger riots. The only real solution to the "food crisis" is the development of proletarian struggles towards the world communist revolution, which will make it possible to provide a perspective and a meaning to hunger revolts. The proletariat can only lead the other non-exploiting strata behind it if it affirms itself as a revolutionary class. It is by developing and unifying its struggles that the working class will be able to show that it is the only force capable of changing the world and bringing a radical solution to the scourge of famine, but also to the problem of war and all the expressions of despair produced by the rotting of society on its feet.

Capitalism has brought together the conditions for abundance but, as long as this system is not overthrown, it can only lead to an absurd situation where the overproduction of commodities goes along with scarcity of the most elementary goods.

The fact that capitalism is no longer capable of feeding whole swathes of humanity is a clarion call to the proletariat to assume its historical responsibilities. It is only through the world communist revolution that it will be able to lay the bases of a society of abundance where famine will be forever eradicated from the planet.

ICC, 5th July 2008

 



[1]. The term "Third World" was invented by the French economist and demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, in the midst of the Cold War, originally to describe countries which were not tied directly either to the western bloc or the Russian bloc; but this meaning has been virtually abandoned, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it was equally used to describe countries that had the lowest levels of economic development, in other words the poorest countries on the planet, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And it's obviously in this sense, which is more current than ever, that we still use it.

 

[2]. Engels, Introduction to Dialectics of Nature, Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25, p351. Lawrence and Wishart.

 

[3]. On the race riots in Los Angeles, see our article "Faced with chaos and massacres, only the working class has an answer" in International Review n° 70. On the riots in the French suburbs in the autumn of 2005, see "Social riots; Argentina 2001, France 2005...Riots or revolution?" in International Review n°124 and "Theses on the students' movement in Spring 2006 in France" in International Review n° 125.

 

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