Class and the Global "Food Crisis"

The Red Collective

There is perhaps no more brutal display of the inherent irrationality of the capitalist system of production than the expanding "food crisis" developing throughout the world and especially in the global South, where food prices have risen dramatically, condemning millions of the world's poorest to starvation.  Even before the recent crisis, 850 million people lived in what corporate philanthropists call "food insecurity" and it is now speculated in the bourgeois press that the more than doubling of the price of corn (60%), soybeans (76%), wheat (54%), and rice (104%) over the past year will result in what is likely a low estimate of an additional 100 million people falling into extreme hunger and possible starvation.  For many around the world whose basic food requirements already consume 80% of their income, this is a virtual death sentence.  As a result, food riots and protests have occurred in 22 countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Latin America. Even in the US—where the housing market and subprime mortgages have, until recently, buoyed the consumption practices of the richest nation in the world—stores have begun rationing rice and consumers are being encouraged by The Wall Street Journal to avoid rising prices and to start hoarding groceries.

Such riots, of course, create anxiety amongst the owning class and just as when any crisis occurs which exposes the wealth gap and calls into question the legitimacy of the idea that capitalism "works," the bourgeois press has quickly lined up an unending supply of experts, cultural critics, and politicians who, as might be expected, respond with shock and outrage about the "sudden" inability of millions to access the food necessary for basic survival.  Condemning everything from speculators in agricultural markets, to the mortgage and credit crisis, soaring gas prices, the production of bio-fuels, the devaluation of the dollar, and the tried and true alibi of a gap between supply and demand, the "food crisis" has given capital's ideologues another opportunity to represent themselves as "caring" and "ethical" subjects, while pushing solutions which have less to do with epidemics of hunger and starvation and more to do with expanding capitalism's global reach.

The ideological arm of capital is, in this sense, doing what it does best: obscuring the roots of "crisis" in the system of wage labor by focusing on its effects, while searching for ways to use the crisis to generate new avenues for profit.  What is represented as "anger" and "outrage" at the sight of millions of people unable to afford the basic necessities of life is quickly transformed by corporate hacks into a discourse of opportunity for the privatization of social resources: creating prospects for capital investment, which means, above all, finding new sources of labor to exploit.  In other words, the solutions of redistribution and new investment circulating in the bourgeois press are simply the latest version of imperialism with a "humanitarian" face.

The exemplary version of this narrative comes from Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank, who is calling for "A New Deal for Global Food Policy," which would provide "emergency measures" for temporarily alleviating the current crisis while also shifting from "traditional food aid" to "encouraging incentives to produce and market food" that "will scale up investment and advisory support to agribusiness operations in Africa and elsewhere" (7 May 2008,  This approach is echoed by Rana Foroohar who writes in Newsweek that "agriculture, one of the world's most distorted industries, is in desperate need of an overhaul" similar to what occurred during the industrial revolution ("The Biggest Crisis of All," 10 May 2008) and Jacques Diouf, the Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, who argues that "we need to reverse the distorted trade, aid and investment policies that have slowed agricultural growth in much of the developing world" because "high prices finally make it attractive to invest in farming" (Newsweek, "How to Feed the World," 10 May 2008).

What makes farming "attractive" to capital, however, is not "high prices" on the global food market, but the imperialist need for gaining control of new reserves of labor as the rates of profit continue to stagnate in "home" markets. In other words, when Justin Muzinich and Eric Werker argue that "[r]ather than providing aid according to the wishes of foreign governments, the United States should provide incentives to encourage corporations and individuals to distribute development dollars" ("A Better Approach to Foreign Aid," Policy Review, June & July 2008), what is really being put forward is the ideological cover necessary for the imperialist nations to seize ownership of the land and farming labor of the developing world as well as the additional labor that will be used to build the agricultural infrastructure—irrigation, roads, communications and transportation—necessary for the food commodities produced to more effectively reach the global market.

Capitalist profits come not from "high prices," but the exploitation of labor. It is the extraction of surplus value from the labor of workers—for example, the labor of planting, harvesting, packaging, and transporting food that otherwise would not exist for consumption—that drives the accumulation of capital. If the imperialist powers have a new-found "concern" about hunger and poverty, it is a reflection of the fact that developments in agricultural technologies, communications, and transportation in the North have made the labor of small farmers in the South more readily available for exploitation. In addition, insofar as food is a necessary resource in the reproduction of labor for the next working day, control of the global food market would give the victorious imperialist power control over the cost of labor in the "developing" world as well as a lever to use against its own labor force in the class struggle over wages.

It is capitalist exploitation, and not some inexplicable moral, spiritual, or ethical failure, which explains why, despite food accessibility around the world, a Farm Bill has just been passed by the US Congress that provides American agribusiness with enormous subsidies. These subsidies drive down the costs of production for agribusiness, creating so-called "market distortions" that make it impossible for small independent farmers in the global South to compete, ultimately forcing them to enter the global labor market and thus creating the conditions for a new reserve army of labor that capital can use to drive down the costs of labor world-wide ("New US farm Bill Will Anger the World", the star online, 19 May, 2008; "Farm Bill is Sweet for Big Sugar,, 16 May, 2008). 

At the same time, it has recently been reported in Business Week that IBM is in the process of creating more disease-resistant, nutritious and productive seeds, which will only be affordable by big agribusiness, and thus will be used to further price small farmers out of the market, destroying existing food crops and enabling the imperialist nations another means to appropriate their land and labor.  Only under capitalism does the mass industrialization of food production required to meet the needs of the world's population lead to starvation.

To be more specific, the current crisis in the global production and cost of food is an effect of what Marx and Engels call "the epidemic of over-production" (Communist Manifesto) that is specific to capitalism alone.  The irrationality of capitalist production means that while the capacity for ecologically safe, mass produced food to meet the dietary needs of the world has never been greater, millions are left to starve.  What is preventing access to food by those who need it most is not a matter of supply or redistribution, but the social relations of production which turns food, land, and above all labor into commodities, to be bought and sold on the global market.

Of course, the mainstream bourgeois press cannot entirely cover over the "fissures" created by production for profit. For instance, in "The New Face of Hunger," writers for The Economist not only argue that the increased food prices that are blocking access to food "mainly reflect changes in demand—not problems of supply, such as harvest failure," but go on to argue that:

Eventually, no doubt, farmers will respond to higher prices by growing more and a new equilibrium will be established. If all goes well, food will be affordable again without the subsidies, dumping and distortions of the earlier period. But at the moment agriculture has been caught in limbo. The era of cheap food is over. The transition to a new equilibrium is proving costlier, more prolonged and much more painful than anyone expected (The Economist, 19th-25th April 2008).

What is telling is that even The Economist must not only admit how destructive such a "transition" to a global economy is (the weight of which will be borne of course by the global proletariat), but must also admit they can only claim that "If all goes well," a happy new equilibrium will be reached (emphasis added).  Yet, as they themselves go on to discuss, such a happy equilibrium in which all people's food needs are met is fundamentally obstructed by capitalism's tendency towards concentration and centralization of wealth (which they frame as a matter of the "difficulty" of encouraging small farming in the developing world which would be crucial to attaining such an equilibrium).  Talk of "transition" is double-speak aimed at promoting the acceptance of the unacceptable—the further privatization of food production and the threat of poverty and starvation that marks the "dull compulsion of economic relations" that "completes the subjection of the laborer to the capitalist" (Marx, Capital vol. 1).

Despite the media's representation of every social crisis as independent from the next, the roots of the "food crisis" are the same as those now causing the "housing crisis," the "mortgage crisis," and the "gas crisis."   Under capitalism, all products, including the basic products needed by the laborers of the world to survive, are produced for profit.  They are not produced in order to meet social need; they are produced in order to accumulate the surplus value created by workers at the point of production.  That people need to eat, that they need housing and transportation, are, under capitalism, always secondary to the need of the few to profit.  When profits are threatened, capital's need to find new ways of extracting surplus value from labor will always win out over the people's need for food, housing, healthcare, and transportation.  Even if this means that food is hoarded, destroyed, or diverted to more profitable enterprises, while people starve; even if it means that millions of homes are abandoned while millions of people are homeless.

This is why the discourse of "consumption," which since the early 1980s and especially the mid 1990s has been one of the most hallowed concepts in the North Atlantic cultural theory industry, is also revealing itself as little more than an annex of the market sensibility which has become the "commonsense" of the current phase of globalization.  Consumption, the North Left has argued, in concordance with (neo)liberal ideologues, is the basis of individual freedom, and through it, the cultural theory industry promised, one could re-make one's life and break through "old" class stereotypes with new commodities, which is another way of saying one could re-signify one's way into a new position in the division of labor.  Consumptionist fanatics, from Lyotard and deCerteau to Stuart Hall, John Fiske and Angela McRobbie, even claimed it was the new spaces of consumption that were at the basis of resistance to and subversion of capitalism from within.

Like the credit, mortgage, housing market, and bubbles that supported the actual practices of consumption in the US, the discourse of consumption is now revealing its thoroughly parasitic roots in the global relations of production.  On the one hand, the consuming practices of the rich North Atlantic nations and especially the US that have been canonized in bourgeois cultural theory have been premised on the need of global capital to immanently solve its crisis of overproduction of goods produced by workers in the global South.  It did so in large part by subsidizing consumption in the global North by giving credit to large numbers of the working class who are now unable to pay back their debts.  More importantly, through compelling the North's working class into a situation of high debt burden, this has enabled (through, for instance, credit card interest payments) the siphoning off of already historically low wages among the working class, so as to invest in more production (in the global South) which will yield greater surplus value.  On the other hand, while many "subversive" consumers in the US are now losing their homes and declaring bankruptcy in record numbers as a result of the credit and mortgage crises and costs of health care, and while many of the poor throughout the global South are unable to afford even the most minimal quantities of wheat and rice, the profits of oil and bio-fuel companies, agribusiness, and the "soft commodities" markets are soaring. 

Perhaps most tellingly of all, now that the industrialization of the South is reaching unprecedented levels, raising the living standards of some sectors of the working class in Asia (the vaunted "Asian middle class"), the North is now attempting to divide the global proletariat by blaming workers in China and India for the social contradictions that workers in the United States and Europe now confront.  The Wall Street Journal, for instance, is encouraging Americans to hoard commodities so as to maintain their own consumption levels against Chinese and Indian workers who have dared to increase their own consumption:  "The main reason for rising prices, of course," argues the Wall Street Journal's Brett Arends, "is the surge in demand from China and India. Hundreds of millions of people are joining the middle class each year, and that means they want to eat more and better food" ("Load Up the Pantry," April 21, 2008).  According to this narrative, it is not the production relations, and the exploitation of surplus labor that is driving skyrocketing prices, but "greedy" consumers in the global South.  Which is another way of saying that the inter-imperialist conflicts over labor and resources in the South are being mapped in the press as conflicts over consumption that pits workers around the world against one another rather than against their capitalist exploiters.

At a time when millions are in immanent danger of starving around the world, and millions more are in danger of losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their health, it is essential that workers see the current food crisis for what it is—and isn't.  The food crisis (like the "energy crisis" which will deprive people of heat in their homes, the… crisis) is not an inevitable "tragedy," or a necessary effect of a global transition to a "new equilibrium" where all have access to food, housing, jobs, healthcare,... within capitalist relations. It is an instance of the brutal contradictions produced by a social system based on production for profit and a marker of the increasing urgency to overturn it and to create the conditions for the only way that poverty, hunger, housing, and the other needs of people will actually be solved—the international collectivity of labor in a global socialist economy.

THE RED CRITIQUE 13 (Fall/Winter 2008)