Food riots show the need to overcome capitalism

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During the past weeks a series of revolts, protests and strikes against the rising food and energy prices have broken out in many countries of the capitalist periphery. At recent meetings the guard dogs of the capitalist institutions - IMF, World Bank and G 8 - have warned of a gigantic destabilisation and conflicts in almost 40 countries around the world.

It is no coincidence that the hunger revolts are erupting now, since the sharp rise in food prices is not a natural disaster but a result of the sharpening of the capitalist crisis.

Conditions worsen for workers in all countries

Since the new world wide financial crisis began, the living conditions for the working class throughout the world have drastically worsened.

Whereas in previous phases of sharpening of the crisis the workers in peripheral countries were hit much harder and faster than the workers of the industrial countries, we can see now that the workers of the industrial centres and the periphery have to suffer simultaneously - even if still at different degrees - from the impact of the crisis.

Whether in the USA, where each month some 200,000 people lose their homes due to the sub-prime crisis, where thousands are losing their jobs and faced with rising food and energy prices, whether in Europe where prices of many staple foods have risen between 30-50%, or in the "emerging countries" such as China or India, where food prices have also been rising sharply, or in the peripheral countries, never since 1929 have so many people been threatened by the effects of the crisis in such a short span of time. But even in 1929 the threat of hunger did not spread so rapidly to the poor masses in capitalist periphery. And yet we are only at the beginning of this descent. Rising oil prices have bloated the production and transport costs, which have been passed on to consumers in food prices, and the the prices of rice, wheat, corn have risen in most countries by 50-100%, in some cases even doubling or trebling in price, with a drastic acceleration during the past few weeks in particular, the consequences for workers, farmers and the masses of unemployed in peripheral countries have been particularly brutal.

Food price inflation and riots

The price of wheat and soya doubled between spring 2007 and February 2008. The price of corn (mais) went up by 66%, rice by 75% during the past 10 months. The food-price index - established by FAO increased between March 2007 and March 2008 by 57%. Yet the FAO itself maintains that the price explosion is not due to shrinking crops, because in 2007 world grain production rose by 5%. Still every day 100.000 people die of hunger or die of diseases which are immediate consequences of hunger. Every 5 seconds a child under the age of 10 years dies of starvation. 900 million people are constantly undernourished. In reaction riots and protests have erupted in Egypt, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Cameroon, Morocco Mozambique, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Yemen, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Philippines, Mexico and Peru, Argentine, Honduras, Haiti...

"Heartbreaking choices" of the ruling class

"The UN food agency will need to make "heartbreaking" choices about the destination of its emergency aid unless governments donate more money to help it buy increasingly expensive food, a spokeswoman of World Food Programme (WFP) warned, which aims to feed 73 million in 80 countries this year... If by this summer we don't receive more, we will have to make quite heartbreaking choices - either we reduce the beneficiaries or we reduce the rations... The WFP has appealed to governments for an extra $500m to cope with higher food pricesThe USA have released $200m, Germany €10 m in emergency aid". (The Guardian, 16.4.08)

While the IMF predicted that the cost of the present financial crisis would amount up to (1.000 milliards) and different governments have already spent hundreds of billions of $ in rescue operations for ailing banks, the Food Aid Organisations run out of money, because the big countries only hand out crumbs.... Surely capitalist institutions prefer to rescue banks than feed more than a billion people, the recent hunger crisis will add at least another 500 million within a few months...

While price rises of 30-50% of food prices and energy in industrial countries confronting many workers, in particular the unemployed and ‘working poor' with problems of making ends meet, the doubling or so of basic food stuffs in the peripheral countries world poses the danger of starvation. Since more than one billion people live with less than $1 a day, and since many of them have to spend up to 90% of their income on food, such a tremendous rise of food prices is immediately threatens them with starvation.

This catastrophic, life-threatening situation has led to a series of hunger revolts and strikes with demands for higher wages etc. For fear of explosions of protests in Vietnam and India, the governments of these countries - both rice exporters - have suspended the export of rice. Kazakhstan - eighth biggest grain exporter - has threatened to suspend its grain exports. In the Philippines the government has threatened to condemn those who hoard rice to life imprisonment! As a consequence there is a growing shortage of food stuffs, because basic crops start getting hoarded or their export breaks down. Even in the USA major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks. It is only a question of time before a wave of even bigger prices increases reaches the USA, Europe and East Asia.

The fear of starvation has been a nightmare which has accompanied - and spurred on - the ascent of humanity from its beginnings. The root cause of this danger has always been the relative primitiveness of the productive forces of society. The famines which periodically afflicted pre-capitalist societies were the result of an insufficient understanding and mastery of the laws of nature. Ever since society has been divided into classes, the exploited and the poor have been the main victims of this backwardness and the fragility of human existence flowing from it. Today, however, where an additional 100 million human beings are threatened by starvation practically overnight, it becomes increasingly clear that the root cause of hunger today lies in the backwardness, not of science and technology, but of our social organisation. Even the representatives of the official institutions of the ruling order are obliged to admit that the present crisis is "man made". During its ascendant period, capitalism, despite all the misery it caused, believed itself to be capable, in the long run, of liberating humanity from the scourge of famine. This belief was based on the capitalism's ability- indeed its imperious need as a system of competition - constantly to revolutionise the forces of production. In the years that followed World War II, it pointed to the successes of modern agriculture, to the development of the welfare state, to the industrialisation of new regions of the planet, to the raising of life expectancy in many countries, as proofs that, in the end, it would win the "battle against hunger" declared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. In recent times, it has claimed, through the economic development of countries like China or India, to have saved several hundreds of millions from the clutches of starvation. And even now, it would have us believe that soaring prices world wide are the product of economic progress, of the new wealth which has been created in the emerging countries, of the new craving of the masses for hamburgers and yoghurt. But even if this were the case, we would have to ask ourselves about the sense of an economic system which is able to nourish some only at the price of condemning others to death, the losers of the competitive struggle for existence.

But in reality, the exploding hunger in the world today is not even the result of such a despicable "progress". What we see is the spread of starvation in the most backward regions of the world and in the "emerging countries". Across the world, the myth that capitalism could banish the spectre of hunger is being exposed as a wretched lie. What is true is that capitalism has created material and social preconditions for such a victory. In doing so, capitalism itself has become the main obstacle to such a progress. The mass protests against hunger in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the past weeks reveal to the world that the causes of famine are not natural but social.

The Causes of the Present Crisis

The politicians and experts of the ruling class have put forward a series of explanations for the present dramatic situation. These include the economic "boom" in parts of Asia, the development of "bio-fuels", ecological disasters and climate change, the ruining of agrarian subsistence economy in many "underdeveloped" countries, a speculative run on foodstuffs, the limitations on agricultural production imposed in order to prop up food prices etc. All of these explanations contain a grain of truth. None of them, taken in isolation, explain anything at all. They are at best symptoms - murderous symptoms - which, taken as a whole, indicate the root causes of the problem. The bourgeoisie will always lie, even to itself, about its crises. But what is striking today is the degree to which governments and experts are themselves incapable of understanding what is going on, or of reacting with any semblance of coherence. The helplessness of the apparently almighty ruling class becomes increasingly clear. What is striking about the different explanations put forward - apart from their cynical and hypocritical character - is that each fraction of the ruling class seeks to draw attention to that aspect which most closely touches its own immediate interests. An example: A summit meeting of G8 politicians called on the "Third World" to react to the hunger revolts by immediately lowering their customs duties on agricultural imports. In other words, the first thought of these fine representatives of capitalist democracy was to profit from the crisis in order to increase their own export chances! Another example: The present "debate" within Europe. The industrial lobby has made an outcry about the agricultural protectionism of the European Union, the ruin of subsistence farming in the "Third World" etc. And why? Feeling threatened by the industrial competition of Asia, it wants to slash the agricultural subsidies paid by the European Union, which it feels it can no longer afford. The farming lobby, for its part, sees in the hunger revolts a proof of the need to increase the subsidies. The European Union has seized the occasion to condemn the extension of agricultural production at the service of "renewable" energy - in Brazil (one of its main rivals in this area).

The partial "explanations" of the bourgeoisie, apart from being the cynical expression of rival particular interests, only go to hide the responsibility of the capitalist system for the present catastrophe. In particular, none of these arguments, and not even all of them taken together, can explain the two main characteristics of the present crisis: its profoundness, and the sudden brutality of its present acceleration.

Depth of the capitalist crisis

Whereas in the past hundreds of millions of Chinese only had very little to eat (the famous "iron rice bowl), now there is a bigger consumption of meat, dairy products and wheat. Growing demand for more meat and milk means cattle and poultry feed crops take over agricultural lands, feeding far fewer mouths from the same acreage. This is the main explanation put forward by many fractions of the bourgeoisie. This proletaranisation of a part of the peasant masses, which has radically transformed their way of life, and integrated them into the world market, is assumed by the ruling class to be identical with a great improvement of their condition. But what remains to be explained is how this improvement, this lifting of millions out of the clutches of starvation, itself in turn has led to: its opposite. The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, recently declared that rising prices were destroying all the more recent progress made in the "struggle against poverty".

Bio-fuels. Replacing petrol by wheat, corn, palm oil, etc. has indeed led to dramatic shortages of food staples. Not only is the "pollution" balance sheet of bio-fuels negative (recent research shows that bio-fuels increase air pollution by discharging more harmful particles than normal fuel, not to mention the fact that some bio-fuels need almost as much oil as energy input as the energy they produce), but their global ecological and economic consequences are disastrous for the whole of humanity. Such a change of cultivation of wheat, corn/maize, palm oil etc. for production of energy instead of for food is a typical expression of capitalist blindness and destructiveness. It is driven in part by a futile attempt to cope with rising oil prices, and in part - especially for the United States - by the hope of reducing its dependence on imported oil in order to protect its security interests as an imperialist power. Far from explaining the crisis, the bio-fuel scandal is a symptom - and an active factor" - of its depth.

Export subsidies and protectionism. On the one hand there is agricultural overproduction in some countries and a permanent "export offensive"; at the same time other countries can no longer feed themselves. Competition and protectionism in agriculture have meant that as with any other commodity in the economy more productive farmers in industrial countries must export (often with government subsidies) large parts of their crops to "Third World" countries and ruin the local peasantry - increasing the exodus from the country to the city, swelling international waves of refugees and leading to the abandonment of land formerly used for agriculture. In Africa for example many local farmers have been ruined by European chicken or beef exports. Mexico no longer produces enough food staples to feed its population. The country has to spend more than $10 billion annually on food imports. "Left" propagandists of the ruling class, but also many well meaning but misguided or badly informed people, have called for a return to subsistence farming in the "peripheral" countries, and the abolition of agricultural export subsidies and protection of their own markets by the old capitalist countries. What these arguments fail to take into consideration is that capitalism, from the outset, lives and expands through the integration of subsistence farmers into the world market, meaning their ruin and their -often violent - separation from the land, from their means of production. The recovery of the land for the producers is only possible as part of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism itself. This will mean nothing less than the overcoming of private property of production for the market and of the antagonism between city and country, the progressive dissolution of the monstrous mega-cities through a world wide and planned return of hundreds of millions of people to the countryside: not the old countryside of rural isolation and backwardness, but a countryside newly invigorated by its integration with the cities and with a world wide human culture.

While the bourgeois media list these above mentioned factors, they try to prevent the unmasking of the deeper root causes. In reality we are witnessing not least the combined, accumulated consequences of the long-term effects of the pollution of the environment and the deeply destructive tendencies of capitalism in agriculture.

Capitalism destructiveness in agriculture and the environment

Several destructive tendencies have become undeniable.

  • Due to the pressure of competition traditional farming practices have receded and farmers have become dependent on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and artificial irrigation. The International Rice Research Institute warns that the sustainability of rice farming in Asia is threatened by overuse of fertilisers and its damage to soil health.
  • "Monoculture cash crops became the norm; yield was doubled, but at the expense of using 3 times as much water by accessing groundwater using electric pumps. This and fertiliser pollution has caused widespread damage to soil and water"[1] By now some 40% of agricultural products are the result of irrigation; 75% of the drinking water available on the earth is used by agriculture for this purpose. Planting Alfalfa in California, citrus fruits in Israel, cotton around the Aral Lake in the former Soviet Union, wheat in Saudi Arabia or in Yemen, i.e. planting crops in areas which do not provide the natural condition for their growth, means an enormous waste of water in agriculture.

The massive use of ‘hybrid seeds' poses a direct threat to bio-diversity.[2]

In many areas of the world, the soil is getting more and more polluted or even totally poisoned. In China 10% of the land area is contaminated and 120,000 peasants die each year from cancers caused by soil pollution. One result of the exhaustion of soil through the ruthless drive for productivity is the fact that in the Netherlands, the "agricultural power" house in Europe, foodstuffs have an extremely low nutritional value.

And global warming means with each 1°C increase in temperature, rice, wheat and corn yields could drop 10%. Recent heat waves in Australia have led to a severe crop damage and drought. First findings show that increased temperatures threaten the capacity for survival of many plants or reduce their nutritional value.

Despite of new farm land being won for farming, the world usable agricultural land is shrinking due to leaching, erosion, pollution and exhaustion of the soil.

Thus a new danger is cropping up - which mankind might have imagined was a nightmare of the past. The combined effects of climate-determined drought and floods and its consequences on agriculture, continuous destruction and reduction of usable soil, pollution and over-fishing of the oceans will lead to scarcity of food. Since 1984 world grain production, for example, has failed to keep pace with world population growth. In the space of 20 years it's fallen from 343kgs per person to 303kgs. (Carnegie Department of Global Ecology in Stanford)

The folly of the system means that capitalism is compelled to be an over-producer of almost all goods while at the same time it creates scarcity of food staples by destroying the very basis in nature of the conditions of their growth. The very roots of this absurdity can be found in capitalist production: "Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country" (Marx, 1981, p. 949; see also Marx, 1977, p. 860) "It is not only world trade but also capitalist production developed on the basis of the town-country division of labour that feeds back into agriculture: Large-scale industry and industrially pursued agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means for exhausting the soil. (Marx, 1981, p.950) Marx, K. (1981). Capital: Vol. III. New York: Penguin).

Brutal acceleration of the crisis

Since the collapse of the housing speculation in the USA and other countries (Britain, Spain etc.) many hedge-funds or other investors look for alternative possibilities of placing their money. Agricultural crops have become the latest target of speculation. The cynical calculation of speculation in times of severe crisis: foodstuffs are a "safe bet", since they are the last thing which people can "afford" to do without! Billions of speculative dollars have already been placed in agricultural companies. These colossal speculative sums have certainly speeded up the price hikes in agricultural products, but they are not the actual root cause. We can assume even if the speculation ceased, price rises of agricultural products will continue.

Nevertheless, this insight into the role of speculation (which is a red herring if taken in isolation) gives us a clue about the real interconnections in the contemporary world economy. In reality, there is a direct connection between the "property crisis" and the earthquake taking place in world finance, and the food price explosion. The world recession of 1929, the most brutal in the history of capitalism to date, was accompanied by a dramatic fall in prices. The pauperisation of the working masses at the time was linked to the fact that wages, in the context of mass unemployment, fell even more dramatically than other prices. Today on the contrary, the world wide recession tendencies which are becoming manifest are accompanied by a general surge of inflation. The soaring prices of foodstuffs are the spearhead of this development, intricately linked to the rising cost of energy, transport and so on. The recent churning of hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy by governments in order to prop up the failing bank and finance systems has probably contributed more than any other factor to the recent world wide inflation spiral. It also does this by revealing the mountains of debt upon which the "crisis management" of recent decades has to a large extent been founded, so undermining business "confidence".

The working masses of the world are caught in a two sided iron vice. Whereas on the one hand global unemployment exercises its relentless downward pressure on wages, soaring prices on the other hand eat away the value of the little the proletarians still earn.

The present day sharpening of the world wide and historic crisis of world capitalism turns out to be a many headed hydra. Alongside the monstrous property and finance crisis which continues to smoulder at the heart of capitalism, there has already appeared a second monster in the form of soaring prices and starvation. And who can tell which others may soon follow? For the moment, the ruling class still appears stunned and somewhat helpless. Its day to day reactions reveal the attempt to increase state control over the economy and to coordinate policy internationally, but also the sharpening of competition between the capitalist nations. The soothing words of policy makers are aimed at disguising from the world, and even from themselves, the feeling of progressively losing any control over what is happening to their system. A development which confronts the ruling class with a twofold danger: that of the destabilisation of entire countries or even continents in a spiral of chaos, and the danger, in the longer term, of a revolutionary upheaval that puts capitalismitself into question.

The Responsibility of the Proletariat.

Because of these destructive effects of capitalist mode of production on agriculture and the environment humanity is in fact confronted with a race against time. The more capitalist destruction ravages the world, the more the basis of survival of humanity is threatened. However, the drastic worsening of the economic crisis and the speculative effects on food prices are forcing the masses of workers, unemployed and peasants to react immediately. Their struggle is on the one hand a defensive struggle for being able to survive, but at the same time it poses the necessity to eradicate the root causes of their life-threatening situation.


[1] This is taken from an interesting article on libcom by Ret Marut. ("A world food crisis; empty rice bowls and fat rats,

[2] "This is a commodified seed - engineered so it cannot reproduce itself and can only grow with the aid of chemical fertilisers. So farmers are locked into dependency on the multi-national companies selling them this seed. In indigenous agriculture, a cropping system includes a symbiotic relationship between soil, water, farm animals and plants. Hybrid agriculture replaces this integration at farm level with the integration of inputs such as seeds and chemicals. The indigenous cropping systems are based only on internal organic inputs. Seeds come from the farm, soil fertility comes from the farm, and pest control is built into the crop mixtures. In the hybrid package, yields are intimately tied to the purchased inputs of seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and petroleum, and intensive irrigation.. If farmers become dependent on hybrid seed, this biological diversity and local adaptation will be lost. Such commercialisation of traditional farming techniques often puts tremendous economic pressure on farmers - in India, 10,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past year, mainly due to debt worries...The substitution of chemical fertilisers for organic methods of returning nutrients to the soil, such as composting, crop rotation and manure creates lifeless dusty soils prone to soil erosion. An estimated 24 billion tonnes of soil are eroded from the world's agricultural land each year. Dust levels in the lower atmosphere have tripled in the last 60 years" (Ret Marut, op.cit.).

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