The Imperialism of "Eating Well"

Kimberly DeFazio





Hunger today reflects the deep crisis of capitalist production and its fundamental inability to meet one of the most basic of human needs, the need for food.  As recent studies on global hunger indicate, while the world's wealthiest enjoy skyrocketing profits and an unprecedented standard of living, even during a global recession, poor and working people around the globe face an uncertain future without food. A United Nations study in 2002 found that more than 840 million people in the world are malnourished—799 million of them are from the developing world. Even in the United States, the richest nation in history, the number of hungry is on the rise. As a 1999 USDA report indicated, 36.2 million Americans live in food-insecure households, preventing 12.1 million children under the age of 12 from growing up healthy or growing up at all, symptoms of what Loretta Schwartz-Nobel calls in her recent book Growing Up Empty the "hidden epidemic [of hunger] in America" (5). Far from benefiting from what has been represented as the "bread basket" of the world, more and more Americans are forced to wait in bread lines:  as a 1998 National Public Radio report indicated, "Hunger in America has reached a point where one in ten Americans now regularly use a neighborhood food bank or soup kitchen in order to eat" (quoted in Schwartz-Nobel 15).

Despite the fact that it has become impossible to ignore the contradiction between the growth of hunger and malnutrition around the world alongside tremendous wealth and social resources now accumulated in the hands of a few, any analysis of hunger which goes beyond the effects of hunger to get at the root causes is increasingly difficult to find. In most theoretical analyses of hunger today, hunger is treated as a "symbolic" act of ethical care for the other (what Derrida calls "infinite hospitality"), while activist approaches treat it as a matter of the objective re-distribution of food surpluses to the hungry—or "humanitarian aid". But by focusing on the effects of unequal distribution of social resources, both approaches obscure the material and historical cause of hunger. In fact, the dominant theoretical readings of hunger are outright suspicious of any talk of "causes", since they regard such investigations to be part of a misguided search for origin. My argument here is that neither the high theory nor the activist analyses get to the root of the relations between those who "eat well" and those who do not eat. Hunger is the not the effect of ill distribution of resources, nor inequality in symbolic exchange. Hunger is the direct result of inequality at the point of production. By erasing the cause of hunger in the relations of production, dominant theories ultimately support the global interests of those who already "eat well". They represent the leading bourgeois response to the glaring co-existence of enormous food surpluses alongside desperate world hunger, an antagonism which daily condemns production for profit and its cultural apologists.

The U.S. airdropping of food packages on the starving in Afghanistan last year is a useful occasion to begin unpacking some of the dominant assumptions about hunger today, and to examine their actual effects. The event is significant, not as an isolated occurrence, but as an uncanny convergence of the theoretical and the activist positions in support of imperialist "ethics". As the U.S. military onslaught against Iraq continues, and the U.S. and British administrations are attempting to justify their invasion on the basis of the "freedoms" and "liberties" they will supposedly bring in doing so, Afghanistan stands both as an important example of the devastating inequality inherent in capitalism and an index of the ways in which ethics serves to justify the unequal relations between those who eat well and those who starve.

The U.S. dropping of yellow food packages in Afghanistan is perhaps one of the most publicized acts of "humanitarian interventions" in recent history, widely discussed and debated in international media and made a showcase of American "generosity" in the U.S. media. The airdrops began in early October 2001 simultaneous with the inauguration of the bombing of Afghanistan that was initially called "Infinite Justice". The mission involved dropping hundreds of thousands of food packages onto the border-regions of Afghanistan where a million people had been forced to flee, to escape U.S. military action. Decorated with an American flag, each contained a single ready meal comprised of American food products, such as peanut butter, bean salad and strawberry jam. The idea, according to White House representatives, was to show that the U.S. did not consider the Afghan people their enemy—only their government—by "donating" to the starving people the surpluses of the richest nation in the world. As reported in the Washington Post, "In order to have credibility, our words must be matched by our actions," said William Nash, a retired Army major general, who now runs a conflict resolution program at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. "This is the first time that we have conducted humanitarian operations simultaneously with combat operations. The fact that C-17s were dropping rations at the same time as B-1s were dropping bombs is a pretty powerful image" ("Words and Image: Weapons of Other War", Michael Dobbs; Thursday October 11, 2001, Page A08). It is, of course, a mark of the deep cynicism of the defenders of capitalist "democracy" that the "powerful image" of the food packets falling on Afghanistan, which were meant to reinforce the good will and ethical nature of US leaders and highlight the benefits of the world market and democracy, were the same exact color as the approximately 1,200 cluster bombs the U.S. military was simultaneously dropping on the country's "liberated" citizens and which left, upon conservative estimates, 12,400 unexploded, yellow, food packet-like "bomblets" on the ground.[1]

I leave aside for now the many other immanent contradictions of the U.S. airdropping that critics have brought to international attention, such as the cultural arrogance in the choice of food delivered; the reality that not only were the most desperate persons not reached at all—i.e., those who could not travel to the borders—but that the U.S. showed little regard for safe conditions of retrieval of the packages (as many people were left vulnerable to attack by gunfire and bombing as they tried to obtain the scattered meals). And, especially symptomatic, as Arundhati Roy argued in her text "Brutality smeared in peanut butter", is that the planned dropping of 500,000 food packets "only add[ed] up to a single meal for half a million people out of the several million in dire need of food".

What needs to be foregrounded are not only these contradictions (which are effects of the more fundamental class relations of global capitalism), but, more importantly, the way the food relief mission in Afghanistan enacts the main "ethical" assumptions structuring the imperialist cultural imaginary, which frames the common sense of what are considered "legitimate" solutions to hunger in ways that reinforce the priorities of capital and profit. At stake are the economic interests served by the structure of assumptions underlying these actions—a structure which rhetorically "grounds" not only the U.S. practices, but all dominant approaches to hunger today. Examining the assumptions and interests that lie behind the cultural imaginary of hunger is an urgent matter because how we understand "hunger" and its solutions impacts billions of people suffering today from either dire starvation or chronic malnutrition.

At this moment, however, when virtually all of cultural theory presents culture as autonomous from economic, political or social relations, it is necessary to clarify that I am using "cultural imaginary" to mean those modes of understanding the social that ideologically mystify class relations in the interests of capital.  That is, those ideas which represent as "fair" (and "inevitable") the deeply unfair and unjust exploitative relations on which capitalism is based.  The Marxist concept of "ideology" has, of course, "gone a little out of fashion" in cultural studies texts published since the mid-1990s, as Graeme Turner notes, and thus "looks like a slightly clumsy instrument for the analyses of cultural institutions and structures" (166). But the "clumsiness" of ideology (its "crudeness"), I am arguing, is itself an ideological effect.  It is an ideological effect of the growing need of transnational capital's strategies of accumulation for theoretically "savvy" readings of culture which, in the name of "complexity" and sophisticated reading, focus on the "identity" of the local outside of the global structures of exploitation which produce the local. The institutionalization of theoretical savvy-ness has had devastating effects for cultural studies because, the newer, "more descriptive" cultural studies, Turner himself points out, has meant that  "the larger interests being served within this [local] framework tend not to come into sharp focus" (166).  This, I would suggest, is putting it mildly.  To be crude, cultural analyses today have completely backgrounded the relations of exploitation that structure all sites of culture; they have substituted for ideology critique a dense meditation on the specificities of localities, a "sophisticated" mode of reflection attentive to individual differences, yet providing no way of understanding relations between local sites, or how they can be transformed. "Savvy", in short, is a code for the dismantling of knowledges necessary to understand capitalism as a totality of relations, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the dominant readings of hunger available today.

This essay argues for the need for a "crude" analysis of hunger.  Although it is not "popular" today, it is necessary—particularly when dealing with such a fundamental social crisis such as hunger—to go beyond the popular and connect culture to the larger social forces it reflects.  Such an unpopular approach to social questions is urgently needed because it enables cultural analyses to go beyond the "experiences" of daily life to uncover the root causes of emerging social contradictions, such as the crisis of hunger today. As Marx explains in perhaps what is one of the most influential passages on the study of culture, "Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own [i.e., "popular"] consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life" (5). This is another way of saying that it is necessary to uncover the economic relations that undergird the dominant ways in which social issues are represented in the popular consciousness—from the mainstream news, to academic writing, to TV, to films, to the knowledge industry—if cultural theory is not going to merely sophisticatedly "document" the world, but become an active part of a movement for economic and social justice. There is nothing sophisticated about hunger, except the excuses used today to justify prolonging the relations which cause it. Hunger, in short, is crude, and requires crude analyses in order to change it. 


The cultural imaginary in the West today is dominated by the discourse of "ethics". Ethics, in its privileging of the subjective over the objective, turns social structures into modes of personal behavior and thus sees social change basically as a matter of changing individuals' minds and ideas. On these terms, hunger is not viewed as a structure of social relations tied to ownership of property (class)—a view based on the understanding that a transformation in property relation is the necessary precondition of eradicating hunger. Rather, the primary solutions to hunger are individual and subjective ones that promote life-style changes and daily negotiations within existing unequal social structures. For instance: those with food give to those who do not; food pantries redistribute surpluses; understanding that the hungry are not in any fundamental way "different" from the fed, etc. These and other similar reformist practices aimed at addressing only the most intolerable effects of hunger, not its material roots, are widely seen as the only "reasonable" solutions. Ethics, in other words, is one of the main manifestations of theoretical "savvy-ness" today.  Ethical theorists regard transforming hunger by eradicating its roots in private property as highly "unreasonable" and "crude", if not deeply suspicious, since transformation of class relations is deemed a "totalitarian" imposition of one subjective will over another. Social change, to put it differently, is only ethical when it deals with one hungry person at a time.

What is necessary to note about contemporary ethics is that unlike the "traditional" ("modernist") ethics of John Stuart Mill or Kant, for whom ethics involves the study of the "good society" (the "polis") and finding the ideal means of living a "good life", ethics today is post-foundational. It puts itself forward as a "radical" ethics because it does not essentialize or monolithize the subject. Ethics, in other words, is now "post-al" and, as Mas'ud Zavarzadeh explains, begins with the assumption that we have entered a post-historical, post-class, post-industrial, post-historical moment of history; a moment in which capitalism has somehow broken free from its exploitative past (1-2). That is to say, in contemporary articulations of ethics the social is a series of autonomous, disparate, and aleatory events operating independently of any over-arching logic (such as the logic of exploitation), and, therefore, without any common and underlying principles of judgment. As a result, whereas traditional ethics was at least formally committed to a notion of "equality", post-al ethics is resigned to inequality, and views all discussions of "equality" as totalizing fictions aimed at concealing over the fundamental "difference" that constitutes the social. As pragmatist Chris Barker succinctly puts it "The modernist goal of equality is beset with problems, and equality of outcome is neither possible nor desirable" (20). Post-al ethicists, he declares, have instead learned not to "mistake our ethical choices for radical public politics" (19). As a result, ethics today is more concerned with managing the effects of social inequalities.

The shift from modern to postmodern or post-al ethics, it is necessary to emphasize, is not the result of a more "savvy", "sophisticated" or "radical democratic" understanding of ethics—the shift, in other words, did not come about due to the triumph of new or "better" ideas. This is a claim that Francis Moore Lappé makes in the new introductory chapter to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Diet For a Small Planet, a book that has maintained its ongoing popularity by appealing to activist sentiments yet at the same time effectively disconnecting hunger from any encompassing theory of hunger as a product of capitalism. She writes that through the sheer "power of ideas" a new ecological "myth" which recognizes the net of relationships in which humans are involved is coming to replace an older Cartesian "mechanical" myth that separated people into "atoms" and denied them agency (xix-xxvii). This, of course, is the dominant understanding of social change today, which turns the history of capitalism into the progress of ideas and erases the way in which the possibilities of social change are the product of human labor in order to obscure the fundamental exploitation of labor that is central to the organization of capitalist society. Post-al ethics, in other words, is a response to the new needs of capital in the era of cybercapitalism in which the material developments in production that have enabled the possibility of an economically just society are held back by private ownership and must instead be explained as a problem of "bad ideas" if this contradiction is to be secured.

Ethics, to be more general, is an articulation of the way in which individuals are trained to deal with the contradictions of capitalism.  In other words, changes in what constitutes "ethical" behavior are an effect of shifts in the needs of capital. Modern ethics, now deemed too "mechanical" by both activists like Lappé and "high theorists" like Derrida alike, responded to the needs of an emerging capitalist system; that is, it was focused on the aims of "integrating" social classes into the capitalist system at a time of deep unrest brought about by the conflict between dying feudal relations and industrialization. The "good society" was basically an attempt to assure the increasing numbers of dispossessed that the market could meet the common needs of all. Ethics in what is called "post-industrialism", on the contrary, is no longer aimed at "integrating", or including the excluded. With the generalization of capitalist relations throughout the world, and the resulting deepening divisions between the haves and the have-nots, ethics has instead become more interested in "recognizing" "difference" and the underlying alterity that, on post-al terms, subvert  the "good society" (a concept that is, as a result, largely abandoned today as a modernist fantasy of wholeness that reduced the complexity of the social to a false unity). Whereas the ethics of the "polis" emphasized collectivity and politics (albeit often in an idealist fashion), post-al ethics abandons both. It substitutes "community" for collectivity and emphasizes interpersonal relations and individual differences, in order to evacuate social (structural) contradictions from the scene of theory, and replace them with local ones which can be micro-managed. Ethics today is thus more concerned with managing the effects of growing divisions resulting from the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, and ongoing privatization of all aspects of social life. To be ethical today is to recognize class and other differences but to conclude at the same time that nothing can be done to address these contradictions. Post-al ethics, in short, is a manifestation of the growing cynicism of bourgeois society, resigned to deep inequalities. 

Exemplary of post-al ethics is Derrida's text, "Eating Well, Or the Calculation of the Subject" which both articulates the main assumptions of contemporary ethics and its relation with food and hunger, as well as provides the philosophical groundwork for dominant re-distributive approaches to social inequality today because of the way in which it isolates culture from the economic and turns all questions of social inequality into mediations on the structure of language as the limit of knowing. Derrida uses "eating well" as a trope to privilege an ethical way of life, which, following the precepts of deconstruction, resists all totalizing knowledges and practices, especially those that make distinctions between who eats and who doesn't eat, or who eats and who gets "eaten". He argues that the fundamental presupposition of "ethics" today, if one is not to begin from a "totalizing" premise in which for instance one can determine the reasons why some eat and some do not, is "no longer one of knowing if it is 'good' to eat the other or if the other is 'good' to eat, nor of knowing which other. One eats him regardless and lets oneself be eaten by him…" (282). In other words, he argues that the only possibility for living an "ethical" life is to recognize that we cannot avoid "eating" the other, for eating presupposes the very existence of the other (whether animal or vegetable). There is, in short, no outside to the discourse of "eating": even those who do not eat are constructed by the discourse of eating (which is constituted by linguistic relations of otherness and inequality). Of course, this discourse is inherently unequal but, as Derrida argues, there is no other discourse. The issue, Derrida claims, is that "since one must eat in any case and since it is and tastes good to eat, [the question becomes . . . ] how for goodness' sake should one eat well?" (282). Instead of asking why some eat and some do not, or why some eat and some get eaten, Derrida suggests we must learn to eat without "violence", by "learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat" (282). Or, to put this another way, the primary concern of engaging hunger today is not to uncover the root causes of social inequality that lead to hunger, but rather to turn "hunger" into a meditation on the linguistic hierarchies and rhetorical inconsistencies of all explanations.

According to this logic, the ethical subject is one who no longer simply identifies with the self but respects the other by "identify[ing] with the other, who is to be assimilated, interiorized," (283). The self is never single but plural, and indeed the boundary between self and other is continually blurred. And it is precisely this ethical relation to the other that Derrida calls "infinite hospitality" (282): the idea that one gives to the other "infinitely"—without beginning or end, without boundaries or determinants. The "excessiveness" of hospitality in fact becomes even more explicit in Derrida's recent text Of Hospitality, where he writes: "To be what it 'must' be, hospitality must not pay a debt, or be governed by a duty [...] For if I practice hospitality 'out of duty' […] this hospitality of paying up is no longer an absolute hospitality, it is no longer graciously offered beyond debt and economy" (83). Hospitality, I argue, is like "ethics" and "eating well", a trope deployed to exceed class binaries. As Derrida emphasizes, hospitality cannot be the effect of existing relations of material inequality (i.e., to "repay" a social or economic debt); nor can it be "legislated". "Repaying" and "legislating" are textualist codes for the social praxis of changing objective historical structures—codes which are seen as "monolithic" and thus as stopping the play of differences that inherently undermine all attempts at conceptualization. Hospitality, instead, "negotiates" on subjective and local terms the already existing unequal relations among people. It is an act of ethical willfulness that must be motivated spontaneously, without condition, obligation, or determination.

But it is precisely this textual logic of "graciousness" and "hospitality" that enables corporations on the one hand to refuse to pay taxes on their profits—taxes on which working people are forced to rely for social services—and on the other to "donate" large (tax-free) sums to charity (to be used at the discretion of local administrators). Corporations too are invested in precisely such notions of "hospitality" because they function outside the "law". Rather than actually opening any space from which to examine the inherent contradictions of language, Derrida's deconstruction of any connection between the local and the global operates to legitimate the suspension of all social structures such as regulation of the market and eliminates any conception that the state is required to ensure livable wages, support comprehensive healthcare, or to finance advanced educations for the working class. Hospitality is in effect a code, not so much for sophisticated reading, but for economic deregulation.   It is the theoretical equivalent of free-trade agreements. That is, it is an ethical ruse for the complete privatization of social resources under imperialism. Derrida's entire argument is based on the assumption that, as he puts it, "one must eat". But in fact many worldwide do not eat, and even more do not "eat well". What appears to be a "beyond" class argument, in other words, is an alibi for the interests of the bourgeois subject, for whom food, like other social resources, is always already available. Not only does the trope of ethical eating naturalize the relation between the haves and the have-nots, but the very availability of the food "eaten well" by the subject—that is, the conditions under which it is produced—is taken for granted. Derridean ethics, which claims to resist essentializing social relations by appealing to the textual slippage of social codes, is in actuality a means of defending the interests of the ruling class by removing the ethical act from determination by material conditions.

Perhaps the most direct articulation of the conservative interests of post-al ethics however, is Jenny Edkins's Whose Hunger?: Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid. In fact, in what is possibility the most cynical theory of hunger today, Edkins suggests that the problem with hunger is the attempt to find solutions to it. Edkins is proposing an analysis of the global economy that, in her own words, attempts to present a "practical political" theory of hunger that seeks "neither to understand famine nor to provide a solution" (159). Repeating the familiar textualist mantras, she locates the crisis of hunger as a manifestation of "modernity" and "how modernity's hunger for closure and completion is the driving force in its economy of desire and how this produces the impetus to technologization that has been so damaging in modernity's treatment of famines" (xxii). In other words, in the savvy fashion that is indicative of ethical analyses of hunger, she locates the real trouble with hunger in all attempts to solve it! Hunger becomes a means of exploding the pluralities of subjectivity and thus, in a stunning reversal, a means of "free expression" against discourses of domination which seek to "totalize" hunger.  Hunger, in other words, becomes a space for meditating on the complexities of different, irreducible experiences of not having enough food to eat.  Arguing that any attempt to solve hunger is, in actuality, a discursive regime that silences all utopian possibilities and reinforces the "crude" idea that hunger is a "problem" that requires a (single) "solution", she writes, "we must continue to negotiate the relation between the calculable and the incalculable in each particular case in which action is called for […] the search for technical answers is itself political and supports the powerful, not the suffering" (159). According to this logic, it is only when we give up searching for a solution to hunger that hunger will cease to be a problem. How better to solve the problem of hunger than to deny it is a problem! Hunger is merely a trope, and "food" is food for thought.  Ethical approaches to hunger, Edkin's text demonstrates, attain adequate expression (to paraphrase Marx and Engels in another context) when, and only when, they become a mere figure of speech (Manifesto of the Communist Party 497). 

The suspension of judgment, law, determination, etc., while masquerading as the height of freedom, is really a means of justifying deeply contradictory practices. When for instance Chris Barker extends Derrida's and Edkins' theoretical framework to a discussion of the possibility of any social change, arguing that "ethics do not require to be grounded in anything outside our beliefs and desires" (13), what he is really saying is that the ethical subject, not determined by any laws or objectives, can be ethical in one place, and not in another. Post-al ethics is a "politics without guarantees". But what are "guarantees" on this logic except the ability to connect one's actions to the larger social forces of which one is a part, and what does the suspension of "guarantees" do except eliminate the means of understanding the world outside of experience and immediacy? On the terms of the ethical, there is no basis on which to critique the U.S. imperialist practices of on the one hand dropping food for the hungry in its "humanitarian" missions, and, on the other, using food and nutrition as a weapon against people in the economic blockade against Iraq. The ethical subject can simply say that because our knowledge is always limited, it is impossible to determine the effects of all of our practices, let alone their causes. To once again return to Barker—whose "introductory" writings on the analysis of culture for beginning students serve as an index of the institutionalization of the deeply conservative trend in cultural studies today—we engage in so many contradictory practices in such a "complex" world, "the justification of ethics becomes an increasingly complex matter that depends at its best on dialogue and at its worst on a descent into violence" (13-14). Indeed, for post-al ethics, there is only "indeterminacy" and contradiction, and violence is thus inevitable. By reducing the subject to the effects of textual oscillations, there is no principle upon which one acts. Far from serving as an intervention into the domination of the West, post-al ethics becomes an alibi for U.S. imperialist practices of dropping food for the hungry, while simultaneously using food and nutrition as a weapon against people in order to secure U.S. economic interests in oil, labor and other resources.  Post-al ethics is a pretext for opportunism.

That the seemingly radical notion of ethics is but a cover for imperialist practices is evident, for instance, in the fact that just over a year after the "humanitarian intervention" "Infinite Justice", the Afghan people are in many instances facing worse conditions than they were before the mission. In fact, so desperate has the situation in post-intervention Afghanistan become, that after the endless boasting of the "liberation" of Afghan people by the U.S., the U.S. appointed "president" of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai recently called on the U.S. to remind it "not to forget" his country as the U.S commits tremendous military and economic resources to the invasion of Iraq ("Don't forget us, Karzai warns"). But Karzai's trip is not the only "official" index of the actual conditions of Afghanistan. As even a recent report on Afghanistan commissioned by the U.S. administration's own Agency for International Development indicates, "the level of 'diet' security," a measurement of vulnerability to famine, has plummeted from nearly 60 percent in 2000 [before the bombing began in Afghanistan] to just 9 percent now (reported in Smucker). Meanwhile it is expected that 1.5 million refugees displaced during the U.S. war will return to the country in 2003, placing even more of a burden on already scarce resources—and so scarce are basic resources that a UN report indicated as many as 88 percent of people living in urban areas lack access to safe drinking water (Colson 47).

Under the same guise of "helping" the people of Iraq see the value of democracy, the sanctions imposed  by the U.S. on Iraq have had brutally undemocratic effects for over a decade. As Rania Masri writes, since the U.S. war with Iraq began in 1991, which killed more than 300,000 Iraqis over a 43 day period, "more than 1 million people—mainly young children—have died as a direct result of the US-led blockade", and 4 million people, one fifth of the population, are currently starving to death in Iraq, based on a UN FOA report. Every month in Iraq, according to the 1996 UNICEF report, more than 4,500 children under the age of five died from hunger. The current war promises only further devastation. Already, there are reports of famine in Iraq, due to the choking and destruction of virtually all production and distribution of goods throughout the country as a result of the invasion (which has begun, critically, during the planting season).[2]  Far from helping the poor in Afghanistan and Iraq to feed themselves, imperialist ethics have rendered them further dependent upon and exploited by the imperialist nations.

The status of the "infinite" in the ethical, whether it is the infinite of "infinite hospitality" or "infinite justice", is in short a ruse for rendering justice impossible, through infinite deferrals which extend forever into the future the unequal conditions that currently exist.


In comparison to the "high theory" of Derrida and the out and out cynicism of Edkins, activist approaches to hunger can seem almost radical. After all, whereas Derrida and Edkins are satisfied with merely symbolic responses to hunger, activists argue for the need for objective redistribution of food surpluses. A case in point is Francis Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins' text, "Beyond the Hunger Myth: What can we do?". Lappé is widely known for her writings on hunger, food and diet, and the idea that we can change our own practices, as well as the world's, by changing what and how we eat, a philosophy perhaps most famously elaborated in her 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet. In the more recent "Beyond the Hunger Myth: What can we do?" Lappé and Collins critique the dominant thinking that sees hunger as the effect of "natural" causes about which people can do very little, and instead insist that hunger is the effect of social practices and thus can be changed. "Since hunger results from human choices, not inexorable natural forces, the goal of ending hunger is obtainable. It is no more utopian than the goal of abolishing slavery was not all that long ago" (402). They point to the overwhelming surplus food and waste that exist amid desperate want, and argue for the need for "real change" (408) to address these relations. However, what they mean by "real" change required to put an end to hunger is really only a more ethical capitalism which attaches more "responsibility" to private ownership of farmland, and encourages more "personal" responsibility (local participation) among citizens. They thus stress the effectivity of local participation in such activities as community groups, soup kitchens and churches which distribute food surpluses to the hungry, as well as writing letters to editors and government representatives, investing in companies and institutions that "support our values" (404) and boycotting companies whose products are harmful to people. These are the kinds of activities, they suggest, that can help lead to a wider distribution of "purchasing power" among people so that they can better meet their own basic needs.

But "purchasing power" is a function of class. It depends on one's relation to the means of production. If one owns the means of production as corporations do, one can force others to work and make "purchases" through the exploitation of their labor. If one does not own the means of production, one can only make "purchases" by selling one's labor. The less one's wages (if one is able to find a job at all), the less one is able to purchase. This is the fundamental class relation in capitalism—between owners and workers—and it is the cause of the growing numbers of hungry people in the world. Inequality under capitalism is the direct result of private ownership of the means of production. Inequality in access to food results from the concentration of the means of food production by capitalists who produce food for profit, not social need.  Without changing private property relations, the purchasing power of the capitalists relative to workers will continue grow. The focus on "purchasing power" and its "expansion" turns the matter of hunger into an issue of increasing avenues of consumption that blurs the class antagonism between owners and workers, and thus provides an argument for extending the very system that produces hunger to begin with. It is for this reason that the local activism Lappé and Collins promote will have little effect on hunger, at best, and will ultimately support further cuts in food support, at worst.

As Janet Poppendieck argues in her examination and critique of the rapidly expanding national network of food pantries, charities and other kinds of hunger activism that have emerged since the early 1980s, such practices reflect an (ideological) vulnerability among citizens in the U.S. to "token solutions—solutions that simply link together complementary symptoms without disturbing the underlying structural problems" (191). That is, although such forms of activism may in the short term relieve the hunger of some and enable well-meaning activists to feel like they are doing something practical to stop hunger, such practices actually obscure the underlying economic relations of inequality. They focus on the effects of capitalism without connecting these effects to their cause. "Many poor people are indeed hungry, but hunger, like homelessness and a host of other problems, is a symptom, not a cause, of poverty. And poverty, in turn, in an affluent society like our own, is fundamentally a product of inequality" (198). To continue to substitute local action to reduce hunger for transforming the social relations that give rise to it in the first place thus actually enables the continuation of the unequal (class) relations of hunger, despite the best intentions of activists.

In fact, as Poppendieck correctly points out, the widespread praise and uncritical celebration of the large network of hunger programs that have emerged as a response to the cut backs in federal spending on welfare programs actually work to justify these cuts:

By creating an image of vast, decentralized, kind-hearted effort, an image that is fueled by every find-raising letter or event, every canned goods drive, every hunger walk, run, bike, swim, or golf-a-thon, every concert or screening or play where a can of food reduces the price of admission, we allow the right wing to destroy the meager protections of the welfare state and undo the New Deal. Ironically, these public appeals have the effect of creating such comforting assurances even for those who do not contribute. (196)

The large network of hunger programs is the result of the massive cut backs in federal spending on welfare programs inaugurated by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Such "non-government organizations" have emerged to fill the gaps that have been left by the transference into private hands of public funds that formerly went to state-sponsored programs. While this has been represented as a newfound "freedom" from state regulation by the corporate media, it is a freedom that only a tiny few have benefited from. Workers have been forced to make up what federal funds used to cover with their own steadily shrinking paychecks. It is little wonder that these programs have become the mainstay of the Bush Administration, which has further cut social spending on such programs as food stamps—a program on which millions of Americans rely but which has over the last 6 years been cut by $26 billion.[3]  

This is, by the way, why the "Rice for Peace" protest, a recent international activist effort to mail envelopes filled with rice to the Bush administration in order to persuade Bush to promote "freedom" not by bombing the Iraqis but by "Feed[ing] Thine Enemy", will have little impact on the underlying relations of hunger.  For it attempts to critique the administration's practices from within the very same structure of (ethical) assumptions that undergird "Operation Iraqi Freedom". It forgets that feeding the "enemies" of imperialism has always been accompanied by bombs, whether in full view of the liberals of imperialist nations or not.  The attempt to separate feeding from bombing under capitalism only covers over crude relations that make both necessary. 

In contrast to post-al theories of hunger, whether the "theoretical" or "activist" renderings, Marx argues in Capital that "The intimate connection between the pangs of hunger suffered by the most industrious layers of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis, is only uncovered when the economic laws are known" (Vol.1, 811). What explains the existence on the one hand of the widespread destruction of food surpluses and on the other hand hunger on a world scale is not a malfunctioning of the market, or a matter of unequal distribution, but the commodification of social resources which is at the very core of capitalism. Under capitalism, food, like everything else, is commodified—that is, it is produced for profit, not to meet human need. This means that not only will corporations only produce food (and certain kinds of food) to the extent that it is profitable—for instance, although foods with high percentages of sugar, artificial ingredients and preservatives are unhealthy, they are also the most widely available because they are cheapest to produce and therefore most affordable; whereas organic foods remain the exclusive food of the elite, as they are more expensive to produce. More importantly, when food is commodified, only those who can afford to purchase food can eat. As opposed to those who own the means of production, workers, who rely on their labor to provide the means of purchasing food, eat only to the extent that they find work. If they do not have the money to purchase food, they must go hungry, unless they are by chance able to obtain food from charity organizations, or are able to produce their own food—an opportunity transnational corporations are rendering virtually impossible in the South as well as the North. On the basis of these unequal relations of production enormous quantities of food are destroyed in order to maintain high rates of profit, rather than distributed to the vast majority of the population most in need of healthy and nutritious food. Hunger is not, in short, the effect of a lack of food or mismanagement of food distribution—it is the effect of an overwhelming surplus which remains private property while billions starve, not due to unethical behavior, but unequal relations of production, in which the majority is subject to the dictates of the few own and control all social resources.

Both the activist and the theoretical approaches to hunger overlook the fundamental economic structures that produce hunger and instead opt for a more ethical negotiation of the market, on the basis of which both conclude that there will always be an "other"; that real freedom—freedom from exploitation—is always "unrealizable". And perhaps the clearest indication of the convergence of the high theory "ethical" logic and the activist approach to hunger is in the 2002 preface to Diet for a Small Planet, where Lappé argues for the same notion of the "infinite" that we find in Derrida. What we lack, she argues, is not food but a particular, more "ambitious" notion of democracy: a "democracy as an ever-unfolding dynamic to which there can be no final resting point" (xli). Quoting Czechoslovakia's President Vaclav Havel, she clarifies this textualist logic: "One may approach [democracy] as one would approach the horizon, but it can never be fully attained" (quoted xl).[4] According to the "ethical" (and activist) theory of democracy, capitalism represents the horizon of the possible and democracy can never be anything more than the system of inequality that provides tremendous wealth for some and overwhelming poverty for most. What a comforting thought for those slashing the remaining funding for social welfare.


The practices in which the U.S. and other imperialist nations engage are practices to which they are economically, not ethically, driven. In order to understand why the U.S. is compelled to undertake rhetorical defenses of "democracy" and "freedom" on the one hand, and actual devastation and destruction on the other, it is necessary to understand the role of the U.S. in the global economy, and more specifically, the relations of imperialism. That is to say, if we are to move beyond "ethical" negotiation of inequality on a day-to-day basis, to the realization of a truly democratic society based upon economic and social justice, we must begin to examine the actual material conditions in which billions of tons of foods is produced while billions of people die from hunger and malnutrition.

Today, as I have suggested above, the production of food is dominated by the interests of transnational capitalism and it is on the terms of profit, not need, that food is produced. For example, as William D. Heffernan documents, "Mitsubishi, among the largest automakers and the second largest bank in the world, is now one of the world's largest beef processors" (74), an almost absurd indication of the way in which food production has become one of the most important avenues of profit for global capital. The development of the global reach of agribusinesses has been one of the central effects (and driving forces) of "free-trade" treaties such as NAFTA, and has enabled the consolidation of international food production in the hands of a few major companies. As Heffernan explains, "The food systems of the world are becoming so integrated by TNCs [transnational corporations] that it makes little sense to speak of a food system in a single country. For example, not only do IBP, Cargill, and ConAgra process 81 percent of the beef in the United States, they also have feedlots and slaughtering facilities in Canada and about the same market dominance there […] These same firms also have beef operations in many other countries, including Australia, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina" (71-72). In other words, food production has become global, and the production of the world's food is increasingly determined by the profit margins of only a handful of capitalists.

The intense concentration of production in the hands of a few, a concentration of socially produced resources which determines whether billions of people eat or go hungry, is what Lenin explains is the effect of capital's imperialist need to establish control over the world's resources as a means of controlling labor costs and the costs of natural resources, and to reduce the entire world into a "free market" governed by the laws of profit. Imperialism, as Lenin argues, is the highest stage of capitalism, when, as a result of the constant development and concentration of production that characterize capitalism, free competition among capitalists gives way to monopoly. These monopolies, which become larger and fewer as they merge with or buy out other corporations and industries, are able to establish connections and contracts amongst themselves to secure huge monopoly profits around the world, and divide the world amongst themselves. Concentration, Lenin explains, "has reached the point at which it is possible to make an approximate estimate of all sources of raw materials […] of a country and even […] of several countries, or of the whole world. Not only are such estimates made, but sources are captured by gigantic monopolist combines.  An approximate estimate of the capacity of markets is also made, and the combines divide them [the resources, land and skilled labor] up amongst themselves by agreement" (25). That is, unlike the earlier stage of capitalism, when capitalist were producing for a relatively unknown market and competition among all capitalists was the norm, the monopolies are able to make agreements with one another to help guarantee high prices for their products. And the larger the monopoly, the more powerful it is in establishing, maintaining and extending these connections.

But because of the very nature of capitalism, which is based on the exploitation of labor by those who own the means of production, as the productive forces develop and enable the production of vast amounts of commodities, the appropriation of social resources, as Lenin emphasizes, "remains private" (25). Production, in short, is not used to meet and develop the needs of all people, regardless of how many "networks" are established to ensure smooth realization of profits for the capitalists, but to maximize the accumulation of the few. Capitalism thus develops very unevenly as a result of this fundamental contradiction based on exploitation. Moreover, this "unevenness" manifests not only between workers and capitalists, but also between advanced nations (where capital developed first) and less developed nations (which the advanced nations developed and exploited for their own purposes, through colonization). Some nations advance at a rapid pace, always at the expense of other lesser-developed nations, at the expense of the exploited. In this context, one of the characteristic features of imperialism is the shift from the export of goods to other nations to the export of capital. This is because as the monopolies grow, they accumulate more and more capital—what Lenin calls "surplus capital"—at the expense of the exploited.  This surplus capital, which is the unsaid of imperialist ethics (that is, is at the basis of all ethical theories of "giving" to the "other"), is kept for the owners of the capital in banks and financial institutions, which themselves grow into huge oligarchies due to the amount of capital they control and profit from.

But as long as it sits in the bank, this capital does not produce profits for the capitalists, it remains unproductive. In order to make these enormous amounts of capital productive, it is increasingly exported in the form of high interest loans to countries that are less developed, in order to advance the productive levels and markets of these nations. The role of the IMF and the World Bank is precisely this: to export surplus capital to areas where there is a lack of capital, and ensure the economic hegemony of the world's most powerful capitalists and states. Where the level of productive forces remains relatively undeveloped, skills are lower, wages cheaper and resources available at a much lower price, relative to the more advanced regions, making such regions highly profitable for those with surplus capital to expend. Whereas capital used to primarily export goods to colonies whose resources, labor and raw materials had been taken to produce the commodities that were later sold back to the people of those colonies, under imperialism, there is an increasing trend in the export of capital. The exporting institutions gain huge amounts of profit from these loans, which is why Lenin argues, that "Capitalism, which began its development with petty usury capital, is ending its development with gigantic usury capital" (221).

In 1997 alone, the total debt owed to the first world by the third world was $2.17 trillion, up from $1.4 trillion in 1990. Each day, developing countries pay the rich nations $717 million in debt service.[5]  Moreover, in most cases, the loan money must be used to purchase goods produced in the first world (i.e. loan money for agriculture in Africa must go to purchase tractors and seed form the United States, etc.). The loans support economies in the North while they put those in the South into further debt. Rather than becoming more able to pay off loans, the less developed nations become increasingly in debt to the more advanced. "As long as capitalism remains what it is", Lenin writes:

surplus capital will be utilized not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalist, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap[…]. The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become "overripe" and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for profitable investment. (63)

The nations in debt are kept at a relatively low state of development relative to the advanced nations, where production has advanced, wages are generally higher, there are more social institutions that enable a higher living standard among workers, etc. The debts are used, not to develop nations and bring about a balance and evenness in the world economy—just the reverse. They are used to control the economies of developing nations, and in doing so, control the rate of exploitation of these nations. It is more profitable to keep people in the South poor, with few skills, and without social welfare—that is, as a source of cheap labor—than it is to develop the infrastructure of countries, because then they are unable to command the wages that workers in the advanced nations do. Thus, though commodities are cheaper to produce, capitalists reap huge profits, since the products are not offered to consumers at lower prices, due to the monopoly price gauging that is the norm under imperialism.

This has particularly devastating effects in terms of food production. As Ernest Mandel argues, "the capital exported to the under-developed countries specializes essentially in production for the world market (together with the establishment of the infrastructure needed for this production). The economy of these countries thus becomes "the complement of the capitalist economy of the metropolitan countries and is developed only within the limits set by this function" (460). "The result," Mandel continues, "is a completely one-sided economic development, limited to the production of a small number of products or even of a single product (monoproduction, monoculture) […] Monoculture and monoproduction makes these countries strictly dependent on the international business situation, and entail a number of economic and social defects" such as economic instability and over-exploitation of the soil, causing its exhaustion and undernourishment of the population (460-461). For instance, a country is forced to specialize in one specific crop such as corn. Far from being determined by the needs of the people of the country, this crop is determined by the needs of the corporations who profit from producing the crop. Even more devastating, the crops are produced for export, not for national consumption. Thus, many countries in Latin America have been turned over to transnational corporations such as Taco Bell for cattle grazing or to produce corn for the cows for the beef in Taco Bell products.

A telling example of the consequences of export crops (or cash crops) can be seen in the recent famine in Zimbabwe, where in the spring of 2002 at least half of the population was starving. Whereas in the 1980s Zimbabwe produced cereal products—that is, agricultural products that could feed the Zimbabwean people—since the 1990s its main crop has been tobacco, which not coincidentally has been produced on the white settler farms, the largest farms in the country with the best agricultural land. As Kensika Monshengwo writes in his critique of the ways in which the West's demonization of President Robert Mugabe misses the point about agriculture in Zimbabwe, while white farmers own the large farms on which tobacco is produced, "the other food crops (the ones you can actually eat) are mainly produced by the small farmers (black farmers), on what is classified as inferior soil in terms of fertility".  The majority of the agricultural product of this country is not even a food item. The people in Zimbabwe, like the people in many other developing countries, are thus almost entirely dependent upon imports from other countries to meet their basic food needs. This is of course only exacerbated by droughts which threaten the few crops the small farmers are able to produce, and the fluctuation in market prices of tobacco, which impact the country's ability to pay back its enormous debts (currently $4.5 billion) to the IMF and other transnational banking institutions.  Not only are people poor and hungry, but the crops that the Zimbabwean's country has been turned over to produce cannot even sustain them. Agriculture, once again, becomes a weapon in the hands of capitalists.

That this is not a result of poor management or "bad luck" can be seen in the fact that the history of capitalism is a history of famines during moments of surplus production. The current events in Zimbabwe are thus decidedly similar to the same process about which Marx in 1855 said of Ireland: "the Irish agricultural system is being replaced by the English system, the system of small tenures by big tenures, and the modern capitalist is taking the place of the old landowner" (Ireland and the Irish Question 76). In other words, regardless of the damage done to local populations, agriculture is transformed according to the needs of advancing capitalism. The consequence in Ireland of course was that when the main staple on which the Irish were forced to rely for sustenance failed due to the potato blight, the people of Ireland starved, even while Irish grain that continued to be produced in sufficient quantities to feed the population was either hoarded by landowners or shipped off to British consumers. "The results of this great catastrophe are known" Marx wrote. "The Irish population declined by two million, of whom one part died of starvation and the other fled across the Atlantic Ocean" (95). This catastrophe, moreover, was in turn used to even further subjugate and exploit Ireland in the interests of British capitalists, for "Over 1,100,000 people [were] replaced with 9,600,000 sheep" (Ireland and the Irish Question 142). Sheep, that is, on which the rapidly growing English textile industry was based.

Small farms are no match for the agribusinesses of the imperialist countries, even in countries that are today still struggling to meet the needs of the local population through small farming. As Tina Rosenberg recently wrote in the New York Times, the small corn farmers in Mexico are going hungry as a result of their inability to compete with U.S. exports. These farmers are unable to compete, Rosenberg suggests, because, unlike the U.S., where the production techniques are based on mass production in huge enterprises ("megafarms"), the small farmers are based in small production. The small farms produce fewer goods for a higher price, due to the fact that the small-scale production technology on which they rely is far less productive. But on top of the significant differences in levels of production (which always result in higher profits for the more advanced), the U.S. provides its own farmers with huge subsidies so that they can offer their products at even lower costs, and thus gain an edge on the international market. "These products", Rosenberg writes, "are so heavily subsidized by the government that many are exported for less than it costs to grow them. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, American corn sells in Mexico for 25% percent less than its cost" ("Why Mexico's Small Corn Farmers Go Hungry"). It is not surprising then that small farmers are not only unable to sell their own products, but they cannot even develop their productive technologies to better compete because they are not afforded the credit that banks in the U.S. float to the megafarms. And the subsidies are only increasing in the U.S., which is devastating farmers not only in Mexico but around the world, and has led to widespread protests against the "free trade" agreements that have precipitated these conditions. As a result, "Agricultural subsidies, which rob developing countries of the ability to export crops, have become the most important dispute at the W.T.O." (Rosenberg A22).

Rosenberg addresses one of the direst situations facing small farmers today, but what are the solutions put forward to these issues, and how effectively do they address the problems?  Rosenberg calls for the end of subsidies to U.S. farmers and for Mexico to start paying subsidies to its own farmers. She is arguing in other words for fairer trade, for the playing field to be leveled out through better policies to protect the less technologically developed nations and farms. But such a solution, while on the surface an ethical one, entirely ignores the imperialist relations that have led to the growing hunger among small farmers. As a result, Rosenberg is basically asking capitalism to cease being capitalism. Larger capitalists, in short, have always pushed out competition, and they can do so because the state and international law operates in their interests.  Calling for subsidies for small farmers, outside of struggling to end the global property relations which result in current inequalities only attempts to deal with the most excessive abuses of capitalism.

Lenin clarifies the crude reality of imperialism when he writes, "It goes without saying that if capitalism could develop agriculture, which today is everywhere lagging terribly behind industry, if it could raise the living standards of the masses […] there could be no question of surplus capital […] But if capitalism did these things it would not be capitalism" (62-63). In other words, by calling for a more "ethical" balance of trade Rosenberg is erasing the very features of capitalism that have led to the current situation, and therefore proposes a solution that barely scrapes the surface of the issues.

Even if we take seriously her solution to end U.S. subsidies and begin subsidies to small farmers in  Mexico, what about the hungry in the urban centers of Mexico?  How will better trade for Mexican farmers help these workers?  The urban poor are hungry not because the Mexican farmers are not able to compete with the prices of imports, but because the wages of the urban working class (if they are able to find jobs) do not cover the costs of basic needs such as foods; a matter not of free trade but capitalist exploitation. This is of course the same situation that urban workers in northern cities face—an increasing inability to afford food despite the low cost of food production because their wages cannot sustain them.

And what about the small farmers in the U.S.? Like the small farmers in Mexico, they are at a severe disadvantage to agribusiness, and will themselves completely collapse (if they haven't already) without the already extremely low rate of subsidies given them by the U.S. government.

Fair trade policies will not solve the hunger of the small farmer in Mexico—or in the U.S. for that matter—because unfair trade has never been the problem. The problem is capitalism, and its systematic prioritization of (monopoly) profits over people's needs. What the small farmers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border have in common is that they are, as Marx and Engels argue in Manifesto of the Communist Party, being forced into the working class as a result of the concentration of production into fewer and fewer hands. "The lower strata of the middle class—the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen, and peasants—all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production (479-80).

It is precisely because the problems of hunger today are the result of "more" capitalist development throughout the world, not "less", that even the writings of one of the foremost theorists of hunger and famine, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, are subject to the same (ethical) limits of activist and "high theory" approaches.  Sen's work of course has analyzed famine in developing countries, particularly India, and he argues that the means of combating hunger remains the expansion of "democracy" through the development of "controls" on capitalist exploitation. In their co-authored text, Hunger and Public Action, Sen and Jean Drèze acknowledge that while hunger has been persistent feature of history:

[h]unger is, however, intolerable in the modern world in a way it could not have been in the past. This is not so much because it is more intense, but because widespread hunger is so unnecessary and unwarranted in the modern world. The enormous expansion of productive power that has taken place over the last few centuries has made it, perhaps for the first time, possible to guarantee adequate food for all, and it is in this context that the persistence of chronic hunger and the recurrence of virulent famines must be seen as being morally outrageous and politically unacceptable. (3-4)

In other words, Sen's arguments are based on an analysis of the relation between what has become possible given the productive developments of capital, and what actually exists. And what prevents equal distribution of food, according to Sen, is access to "democracy". Sen has in fact become well known for his argument that "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy", and much of his work has focused on developing the narrow concepts of democracy and development to include not only free speech but broad access to education, healthcare, etc. as a means of preventing hunger and famine.

However, as Michael Massing argues in his recent article "Does Democracy Avert Famine?" Sen's by now famous argument about the relation between democracy and freedom is coming under intense scrutiny today as democracies such as India are facing growing reports of starvation and famine. This, while "the government [is] sitting on a surplus of more than 50 million tons" of grain. As a result of these stark contradictions, and the growing protests they have produced, new questions are being raised about Sen's argument. Clearly, critics point out, large sectors of the population are going hungry in many democracies around the world, and at increasing rates: democracy does not seem to be solving the problem of hunger. Sen himself, Massing concludes, "has paid more attention to the shortcomings of democracy and how they can be addressed" (Massing B7).

But neither Sen's older theory (a version of Keynesianism) nor his new theory ever address the main problem to begin with. For instance, Sen's more recent theory of hunger is based on an "expansive" theory of "democracy", as he explains in Development as Freedom. By this he means "Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency" (xii). Basically, what Sen is arguing for is the ability of the market to meet the needs of all people; that is, the market is where the individual agency of each person can be realized—as long as the "restraints" (such as unfair tariffs, policies that privilege one group over another, etc) are removed. But rather than argue for the market the triumphant discourse of laissez-faire capitalism that has become subject to such widespread critique, Sen argues for a more nuanced and complex theory of the market, in which high standards of education, healthcare and civil liberties are central. Sen writes,  "What is crucial in analyzing hunger is the substantive freedom of the individual and the family to establish ownership over an adequate amount of food, which can be done either by growing the food oneself (as peasants do), or by buying it in the market (as the nongrowers of food do)" (161). In other words, the problem for Sen is that people are not able to purchase food, that is, it is unaffordable: "People suffer from hunger when they cannot establish their entitlement over an adequate amount of food"  (162), and thus for Sen what become urgent for developing countries is "the need for the freeing of labor from explicit or implicit bondage that denies access to the open market" (7)  

Sen is saying in other words that people will be able to meet their needs, as long as they are wage laborers who receive a "fair" exchange for their labor. But as Marx explains, the idea of a "fair" exchange of labor for wages is the core ideology of capitalism that obscures the fundamental exploitative relation between workers and owners. In Wage-Labor and Capital, Marx explains that in the exchange of labor for wages, "[t]he laborer receives means of subsistence in exchange for his labor power; but the capitalist receives, in exchange for his means of subsistence, labor, the productive activity of the laborer, the creative force by which the worker not only replaces what he consumes but also gives to the accumulated labor a greater value than it previously possessed" (31). That is to say, while the wages the worker receives for selling his labor power go to the purchase of the commodities that sustain him, the capitalist receives from this exchange more value than he spent. This is because, unlike any other commodity, labor-power produces more value than its "price" by the fact that the capitalist buys labor-power for a set period of time, regardless of how much value is produced. The more productive the laborer, the more she produces during her labor-time above and beyond the cost of her labor (i.e. his wages), the more goes to the capitalist in the form of surplus-labor. This is the source of capitalist's profits.

It is for this reason that, as Marx explained over 150 years ago, proponents of a "fair" exchange of labor-power for wages such as Sen miss the essential point. As Marx argues:

To say that "the worker has an interest in the rapid growth of capital" means only this: that the more speedily the worker augments the wealth of capitalist, the larger will be the crumbs which fall to him […] Even the most favorable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interest of the capitalist. Profit and wages remain as before, in inverse proportion. (33).

In other words, while the expansion of the market that is at the core of Sen's proposal may enable some to better meet their needs, his argument cannot account for the deep levels of poverty and hunger that exist in advanced democracies, where virtually the entire population has been transformed into wage laborers. He is right of course to say that people go hungry because they cannot afford food—but it is precisely due to the generalization of wage-labor (not its impartial development) that this occurs. Hunger will not be eliminated with the market because the market is based on a fundamental division, between those who own the means of production and those who own only their labor power to sell for wages.  Arguing for more people in the developing countries to become "free laborers" in order to have the means (wages) to afford food is simply using the effects of exploitation to solve the problem of exploitation. There is no market solution to hunger.

The reason Sen's arguments are being challenged today is because the gap between the rich and the poor has reached explosive levels, and new theories are necessary to account for new realities. It is becoming increasingly clear that "democracy" under capitalism is little more than an alibi for the plunder of the poor by the rich, a fine illusion of fairness that covers over the fundamentally unequal exchange of labor power for wages. Sen, like many others, is having to make excuses for why the further advance of "democracy" and "development" has only led to further poverty and a general state of hunger among in a growing number of nations.  It must be more "communication" that is the corrective, more "ethical relations", more responsibility, more…. Never, for these bourgeois theorists, as ethical as they are, is the problem capitalist exploitation. 

The time has come to put ethics aside and begin dealing which the stark realities of capitalism today and its systematic prioritization of profit over people's needs.  For those who support the project of freedom from exploitation for all, the solution to hunger is neither the re-negotiation of intersubjective relations, nor the further expanse of and opening up of the market, nor re-routing food surpluses those who cannot access the market. These are only cosmetic changes to help ameliorate a global food crisis, itself the effect of the contradictions of capitalism. What is necessary is a society based not on profit but meeting people's needs. A society, in other words, based on collective ownership of the means of production, so that no one is forced to go hungry.

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_____. and Jean Drèze. Hunger and Public Action. In The Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze Omnibus.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Smucker, Philip.  "A fight to feed hungry in Afghanistan." Christian Science Monitor  3 June 2002.

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Zavarzadeh, Mas'ud.  "Post-ality: The (Dis)Simulations of Cybercapitalism".  Transformation: Marxist Boundary Work in Theory, Economics, Politics and Culture vol. I. (Spring 1995): 1-75.

[1] This contemptuous disregard for the human lives of the occupied continues in the recent invasion of Iraq, where the food packages remain the same color as yellow cluster bombs being dropped, regardless of the U.S. administration's claims to the contrary.  For a report on these issues see for instance "UNICEF concerned that bright yellow food rations and bomblets can confuse Iraqi children" (AP, Wednesday, April 2, 2003)

[2] See, for instance, Charles J. Hanley's report,  "It's a Bad Season for War in Hungry Iraq"  Associated Press, March 22, 2003;

[3] For a report on the relation between cuts in social funding and growth of private aid organizations, see Elizabeth Becker's article, "Shift From Food Stamps to Private Aid Widens".

[4] These sorts of pronouncements are becoming the dominant refrain on the left.  See, for instance, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, which concludes that any kind of real democracy is an impossibility.  Why must these "ethicists" conclude that democracy is never realizable except that because under capitalism the fact of private ownership means that there will always be inequality? There will always be inequality when the people must sell their labor in order to survive, because they lack ownership of the means of production. It doesn't matter how many are enabled more "purchasing power"—when the world's resources are distributed on the basis of commodity relations, there will always be some who benefit at the cost of the many.

[5] "Third World Debt Crisis", World Development Forum webpage

THE RED CRITIQUE 8 (Spring 2003)