The Imperialism of "Eating Well"
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).
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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).
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:
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.
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).
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"
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
Chris. Making Sense of
Cultural Studies: Central Problems and Critical Debates. London, Thousand Oaks, California, and New Delhi: Sage
Elizabeth. "Shift From
Food Stamps to Private Aid Widens", New York Times. November 14, 2001. A14.
Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony,
Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left.
London and New York: Verso, 2000.
Nicole. "The Truth
about Afghanistan". International
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(March-April 2003): 43-49.
Carole and Penny Van Esterik. Food
and Culture: A Reader. New
York and London: Routledge, 1997.
Jacques. Of Hospitality: Cultural Memory in the Present.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
"Eating Well, Or the Calculation of the Subject" in Points…Interviews,
1974-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
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Image: Weapons of Other War." Washington
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Jenny. Whose Hunger?
Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Charles J. "It's a Bad Season for War in Hungry Iraq"
22 March 2003.
William D. "Concentration
of Ownership and Control in Agriculture". Hungry for Profit.
Ed. Magdoff, Foster, and Buttel.
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
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a Small Planet. 20th
Anniversary Edition. Ballantine Books, 2002.
Francis Moore and Joseph Collins. “Beyond
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London: Routledge, 1997.
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and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
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Democracy Avert Famine?" New
York Times. 1 March 2003: B7.
Rania. "The Women and
Children of Iraq are Under Siege."
"Zimbabweans don't eat tobacco".
Metro Eireann Online http://www.metroeireann.com/contents/zimbabwe.htm
Janet. "Want Amid
Plenty: From Hunger to Inequality".
Hungry for Profit. Ed.
Magdoff, Foster, and Buttel. New
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Tina. "Why Mexico's Small Corn Farmers Go Hungry", New York
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smeared in peanut butter", Guardian.
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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)
See, for instance, Charles J. Hanley's report,
"It's a Bad Season for War in Hungry Iraq"
Associated Press, March 22, 2003; http://www.montereyherald.com/mld/montereyherald/5458116.htm.
 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".
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.
"Third World Debt
Crisis", World Development Forum webpage