Workers Vanguard No. 920
12 September 2008
Behind the Hunger Crisis: Capitalist Profits
Imperialism Starves Worlds Poor
Part One of this article, which we conclude below, appeared in WV No. 919, 29 August.
The U.S. achieved its dominance as the world’s premier exporter of grains and other foodstuffs in the post-World War II period through a policy of massive government assistance to U.S. agriculture and forcing world grain prices down in order to drive out the competition. Grain prices on the world market were kept low by dumping U.S. grain at artificially low prices and by massive food aid (through the so-called “Food for Peace” program). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, U.S. aid accounted for more than a third of the world wheat trade.
The result was a fundamental shift in the world food trade. Before World War II, Europe was the only continent that was a net importer of food. Most territories in Europe’s colonial empires produced almost all the foodstuffs they consumed, little as it was. By the 1960s, this situation had been fundamentally altered as the newly independent semicolonies of Asia and Africa as well as much of Latin America became dependent on imports for their food. By 1978, Third World countries bought more than three-quarters of U.S. wheat exports.
At bottom, U.S. policy was a continuation and intensification of that followed previously by the colonial powers, which sought to eliminate subsistence farming in favor of cash crops for the market. Only in this way could the labor of the colonial subjects be transformed into profit to fill the colonialists’ coffers. The colonial powers seized vast tracts of land and turned them into plantations. Peasants who retained their land were constrained to stop producing food for their own consumption by such measures as taxation (which required cash crop production in order to have money to pay the tax), stark coercion and even subsidizing food imports. By imposing cash crops, often to the exclusion of staple foods, colonialism sowed the seeds of famine.
To be sure, precolonial societies in Asia and Africa based on rudimentary subsistence agriculture also suffered periodic famines and mass starvation resulting from drought and other natural disasters. But in the capitalist-imperialist era, starvation in this part of the world is man-made to bolster the profits of the masters of Wall Street, the City of London and the banks of Frankfurt and Tokyo.
Many semicolonial countries are caught in the blind alley, inherited from colonialism, of concentrating their agriculture on tropical cash crops for sale on the world market. The market for tropical commodities is characterized by chronic over-supply. Many suppliers compete with each other while a few giant trading companies centered in the U.S., West Europe and Japan, often having a near-monopoly, drive down world prices by playing suppliers off against each other. Until the record price boom of the past few years, prices for tropical exports fell steadily because of the imperialist stranglehold on the world market. Chronically obliged to borrow to finance food and other imports, semicolonial countries are forced by the imperialists and their agents in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to increasingly concentrate on cash crops to “export” themselves out of the debt crisis—simply pushing them further into the red.
When the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants knocked the U.S. from its position of hegemonic imperialist power—a decline that included the devaluation of the dollar in August 1971—agriculture was slated to play a key role in shoring up the declining U.S. economy. In 1972, U.S. leaders engineered a world “food crisis” which drove food prices to then-unprecedented levels by taking over 50 million acres out of production and cutting U.S. grain reserves. Despite famines in Africa and Bangladesh in 1974, the U.S. cut food aid to one-third its 1972 level. As a result of Washington’s drive to slash food aid and boost agricultural export earnings, by 1980 U.S. exports of grains and feeds had jumped to eight times the 1970 level. Today, after years of deindustrialization, the importance of agriculture to the U.S. economy can be seen in the fact that, while exports in the first half of this year increased over 7 percent (helped by the declining dollar), commodities accounted for 41 percent of the increase while manufactured products accounted for just 12 percent.
In addition to seeking profits, the U.S. imperialists used their power to drive poor countries into starvation as a way of furthering Washington’s anti-Soviet Cold War. President Lyndon Johnson repeatedly interrupted food aid to India, as it was suffering from the terrible famine of 1965-66, in retaliation for criticisms of the U.S. war in Vietnam. In 1974, as a million people in Bangladesh perished in a famine, the U.S. cut off food aid because Bangladesh sold jute to Cuba. In 1982, when famine struck Ethiopia, the U.S. held up relief assistance because Ethiopia was a Soviet ally. The cutthroats in Washington have turned death by starvation into a routine instrument of foreign policy.
The “Green Revolution” and Its Effects
The development of world food production has been prodigious, outstripping population growth since the 1960s as a result of the “Green Revolution” in agricultural technology. Yet under capitalism even such gains have translated into increased hunger and misery. They have also translated into vast profits for agribusiness giants who can patent hybrid strains of food crops and monopolize the seed market.
The “Green Revolution” was launched in 1943 in Sonora, Mexico, where Norman Borlaug (who received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize), with the backing of the Rockefeller Foundation, used genetic selection to develop “miracle” strains. Since they were introduced in the mid 1960s, hybrid strains of wheat, rice and corn have provided spectacularly increased yields. India went in five years from severe famine to being self-sufficient in grains. Indonesia, which had been the world’s largest rice importer, became self-sufficient in two years. The new hybrid strains were touted as solving the problem of world hunger.
In fact, the hunger of the world’s poor has increased as a result of the “Green Revolution.” Hybrid strains will grow only if they have irrigation, fertilizer and insecticides which require enormous capital outlays. Only the largest landowners can profit from the new technology, and small peasants, unable to compete, are driven from their land. (Indeed, part of the impulse behind investing in the “Green Revolution” in the early 1940s was a ruling-class backlash against the policies of the previous Mexican president, the bourgeois populist Lázaro Cárdenas. In order to head off social upheavals in the turbulent period of the 1930s, he had distributed substantial tracts of land to the rural population—in addition to nationalizing the Rockefeller Standard Oil subsidiary.)
Moreover, the “Green Revolution” has not been self-sustaining. Over time, the hybrid strains developed and introduced in the mid-late 1960s and ’70s have become increasingly susceptible to plant diseases and crop-killing pests. For example, when the rice variety IR8 was introduced in 1966, it produced almost ten tons per hectare (2.5 acres); now it yields barely seven (Economist, 19 April). Throughout the Third World, yields not only of rice but also of wheat and maize have fallen steadily in recent decades. Moreover, commercial agriculture now depends on a limited number of plant varieties; the lack of genetic diversity of the seed stock means that one pest or disease could quickly wipe out a significant portion of world production.
India, the country in which “Green Revolution” technology has been applied on the widest scale, is often cited as the archetype of its “spectacular success.” That “success” drove so many poor peasants from their land that, over the past two decades, the country’s urban slum population has more than doubled and now exceeds the entire population of Britain. By one estimate, some 150,000 poor peasants, driven to desperation by poverty and crushing debt, have committed suicide. Poverty is so entrenched that almost 46 percent of India’s children under the age of three suffer from malnutrition—a higher rate than in sub-Saharan Africa (London Times online, 22 February 2007).
Peasant Agriculture in the Chinese Deformed Workers State
An explanation for rising world food prices put forward by U.S. agribusiness corporations, the Bush administration and others is that a raised standard of living in India and China has led to increased meat consumption, in turn boosting the demand for cereals to be used as animal feed. The defense minister of India, where per capita meat consumption is one twenty-fourth that in the U.S., aptly called President Bush’s “explanation” of high food prices a “cruel joke.” In China, it is true that per capita meat consumption has increased prodigiously—it is now ten times that of India—but as the Economist (6 December 2007) pointed out: “Because this change in diet has been slow and incremental, it cannot explain the dramatic price movements of the past year.”
In fact, China and India are two fundamentally different kinds of states and societies, a fact highlighted by the current food crisis. India, a capitalist regional power that is nonetheless dominated by imperialism, exports foodstuffs such as rice and wheat for profit on the world market. Meanwhile, according to UN estimates, India has more hungry people than any other country in the world.
The People’s Republic of China is a bureaucratically deformed workers state and has been since the 1949 Chinese Revolution overthrew capitalist/landlord rule and ripped the world’s most populous country out of the clutches of the imperialist powers that had long held China in their grip. Despite the bureaucratic parasitism and mismanagement by the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the collectivization of the economy has resulted in enormous social gains for workers, peasants and women—not least an end to centuries of chronic starvation in the countryside.
Smashing the Chinese workers state is a strategic goal for the capitalist powers, particularly the American and Japanese imperialists, who seek to turn China into a vast sphere of untrammeled exploitation and super-profits. To that end, they are increasing the military pressure on China while pursuing a policy of internal economic and political subversion, including promoting counterrevolutionary provocations, as in Tibet in the name of “human rights.”
The economic slowdown in the U.S. has been accompanied by increasing calls for chauvinist protectionism that are pushed by both Democratic politicians and the trade-union bureaucracy. Protectionism is deadly poison for workers in the U.S., not least because it is based on the lie that their enemies are the workers of other countries, while serving to conceal the fact that it is the capitalists and their system that are responsible for the destitution of the working class. During the Cold War era, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy was among the most rabid supporters of American imperialism against the Soviet Union. Today, these labor misleaders are directing their virulent hostility toward the People’s Republic of China in the name of “workers’ rights.”
As Trotskyists (i.e., genuine Marxists), we stand for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution, just as we stand for the military defense of the other remaining deformed workers states—Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam—including their need to develop and possess nuclear weapons. Defense of the Chinese workers state is undermined by the rule of the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy whose policies are encapsulated in the anti-Marxist dogma of “building socialism in one country” and “peaceful coexistence” with world imperialism. We call for a proletarian political revolution to oust the venal and oppressive CCP regime and replace it with a government based on democratically elected workers and peasants councils, a government committed to the program and perspective of international proletarian revolution.
Following the death of Mao in 1976, the regime of his successor, Deng Xiaoping, introduced a series of market-oriented policies in the name of modernizing the economy. One of the first economic “reforms” was the decollectivization of agriculture and its replacement by the so-called “household responsibility system,” family farms based on long-term leases (currently 30 years). Land, however, was not reprivatized and restrictions were imposed on the transfer of leaseholds.
Some 700 million of China’s 1.3 billion people are still engaged in agriculture, working small plots 90 percent of which are less than one hectare. Production techniques remain extremely labor-intensive, while China also uses three times as much chemical fertilizer per unit of land as does American agriculture (Paul Roberts, The End of Food ). By international standards, China’s cropping intensity is among the highest in the world. In southern China, two or even three crops are produced on the same piece of land within a year. To achieve this, China has developed varieties with a shorter period of growth. Through such means China has to date maintained effective self-sufficiency (over 90 percent) in basic food grains—wheat, rice, maize.
However, in recent years China has experienced a steady decline in the arable land while the average size of a farm becomes ever smaller. Two years ago Beijing government officials warned that the country was fast approaching the “red line” of 120 million hectares, the minimum amount of land necessary for “grain security” (Economist, 19 April). A major reason for this shrinkage of farm land has been the illegal seizure of peasant leaseholds by local CCP officials who then turn the land over to industrial or commercial enterprises. Such illegal seizures and other bureaucratic abuses have provoked widespread unrest in China’s countryside, at times igniting pitched battles between rural toilers and the police. We defend peasant families against the seizure of their farms and demand full compensation by the government for their loss of livelihood.
Nonetheless, social and economic modernization requires that China move from peasant smallholding to large-scale mechanized farming. The question is how. A government based on workers and peasants councils would not only prohibit or restrict the hiring of labor and leasing of additional land by rich farmers but would also promote the voluntary recollectivization of agriculture. This does not mean reverting to the rural communes of the Mao era, which were basically an aggregate of backward peasant holdings. For the mass of Chinese peasants to give up their own holdings in favor of collective farms, they must be convinced that this will result in a higher standard of living for themselves and their families. Thus a government based on workers and peasant councils would offer, among other incentives, reduced taxes and cheaper credits to peasants who joined collectives.
A rational collectivization and modernization of Chinese agriculture would signify a profound transformation of the society. The introduction of modern technology and the whole complex of scientific farming into the Chinese countryside would require a qualitatively higher industrial base than now exists. This is a vital necessity in order to overcome the fact that with 21 percent of the world’s population, China has only 9 percent of the arable land (and an even smaller share of the world’s fresh-water resources).
In turn, an increase in agricultural productivity would raise the need for a huge expansion of industrial jobs in urban areas to absorb the vast surplus of labor no longer needed in the countryside. Clearly, this would involve a lengthy process, particularly given the limited size and relatively low level of productivity of China’s industrial base. Both the tempo and, in the final analysis, the very realizability of this perspective hinge on the aid that China would receive from a socialist Japan or a socialist America, underlining the need for international proletarian revolution. This perspective is counterposed to that of the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy, from Mao to the current Chinese leaders.
Agriculture and the Imperialist Offensive Against China
Agriculture has in recent years been an arena of conflict between American imperialism and the People’s Republic of China. In the negotiations leading up to China’s joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001, the Beijing regime effectively resisted pressure from Washington to open its domestic food supply to a flood of cheap imports from heavily subsidized, highly mechanized agribusiness in the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries.
The WTO agreement allowed China to protect its agriculture through a system known as tariff rate quotas (OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: China ). As long as the total quantity remains below a certain limit (referred to as a “quota”), imports of basic food grains—wheat, maize and rice—were subject to a nominal tariff of 1 percent. For imports above that level the tariff became quite steep (65 percent). The quota limit for imports at world market prices was and remains low relative to China’s domestic grain production (less than 10 percent).
Since then, the American and European imperialists have sought to break down the barriers protecting China’s agriculture mainly through the Doha round of trade talks launched in Doha, Qatar, under the auspices of the WTO. More generally, these negotiations were an effort by the Western capitalist powers to use food as a weapon in gaining even greater control over the semicolonial world. The U.S./European Union bloc attempted to shackle efforts by “developing nations” to use tariffs and other trade policies to protect their own agriculture, rather than increasing their dependency on food imports from heavily subsidized U.S. and European agribusiness.
Fearing the massive unrest that has already erupted from soaring food prices, Third World governments pleaded with the Western imperialists to reduce such government subsidies, a measure the U.S. categorically rejected. The talks collapsed in late July when China, supported by India, refused to submit to the demands of the U.S./EU bloc to cripple defensive Third World tariffs. Lu Xiankun, a spokesman for Beijing’s WTO mission, defended his country’s efforts to shield cotton, sugar and rice from Western capitalist agribusiness by pointing to the hundreds of millions of farmers in China earning around $2 a day (New York Times, 29 July).
As a result of the breakdown in the WTO talks, many bourgeois commentators have raised the spectre of increased interimperialist economic conflict. American and European capitalists are now more likely to compete for separate trade agreements with dependent Third World countries at one another’s expense. Economic analysts commented that the collapse of the WTO talks “could symbolise an end to multilateral trade agreements” (BBC News online, 29 July).
We opposed China’s entry into the WTO because it undercut the state monopoly of foreign trade. It potentially opens the Chinese economy to greater imperialist penetration and pressures. We wrote: “The actual economic effects of entry will be determined by the struggle of the Chinese working class and rural toilers against the privations caused by the ‘market reforms’ instituted by the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy” (“Workers Protests Shake China,” WV No. 782, 31 May 2002). By the same token, fear of the growing unrest in the countryside is a major factor explaining the Chinese bureaucracy’s resistance to making concessions during the Doha round of trade talks.
Toward a World Without Hunger
It has become commonplace among leftists, including professed Marxists, to praise peasant-based, petty-bourgeois radicals like the Mexican Zapatistas and also bourgeois-nationalist regimes like that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela for propping up small-scale farming. Along similar lines, the South African government of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and COSATU trade-union federation has been calling for more emphasis to be placed on small farms, proclaiming that the use of every inch of possible farm land could solve the problem of hunger. Such pronouncements come in the context of the regime’s much vaunted, and quite stillborn, “land reform” program by which 30 percent of the white-owned farmland, concentrated in large-scale commercial farms, is supposed to pass into the hands of black smallholders. It is truly grotesque to place the burden of overcoming hunger, caused by the capitalists’ manipulations of the market for food, on capital-starved black small farmers.
The idealization of small-scale peasant farming by many self-styled leftists is a reactionary utopia. World hunger can be eradicated only through large-scale farming, utilizing the most advanced industrial technology and scientific research, and based on an internationally planned socialist economy.
The qualitative superiority of socialist economic planning over capitalist anarchy was proven in practice by the historical experience of the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution demonstrated the ability of the proletariat to seize the reins of state power and construct a modern industrial society in which workers have access to medicine, science, education and culture. To deny the historic gains of the Russian Revolution, social democrats, anarchists and liberals point to the Stalinist bureaucracy, which in fact grew out of the isolation of the Russian Revolution in a single, economically backward country. Even given the tremendous bureaucratic distortions due to the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy, the Soviet Union was able to construct an advanced industrial economy almost from the ground up.
The destruction of the USSR in 1991-92 through capitalist counterrevolution, prepared by decades of Stalinist misrule and lies as well as imperialist pressure, led to a catastrophic social and economic collapse in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics unprecedented in the history of any other modern industrial society except in wartime. A striking index of the resulting social pathology has been the sharp decline in life expectancy.
Marxists understand that the qualitatively higher level of industrial productivity of socialist society compared to capitalism will lay the basis for overcoming the division between manual and intellectual labor, agricultural and industrial labor. As we wrote:
“The development of communism will be accompanied by a corollary downward drift in the present population hypertrophy. Evidence of this can already be seen under capitalism in the industrially advanced countries of the world—e.g., Japan, North America and Western Europe—where economic and technological advancement has effected, not through fiat, a substantial reduction in the birthrate. Under communism, both the division between town and country and economic dependence on the family will virtually disappear. No longer will poor peasants or agricultural workers be compelled to have more children in order to ensure enough manpower to work the land. Human beings will have far greater mastery over both their natural and social environments.
“Additionally, communist society will be based on a thoroughly different set of social values from those that exist today. The liberation of women from patriarchal domination will mean complete and unhindered access to birth control and contraception. Communism will elevate the standard of life for everyone to the highest possible level. By eliminating scarcity, poverty and want, communism will also eliminate the greatest driving force for the prevalence of religion and superstition—and the attendant backwardness, which defines the role of women as the producers of the next generation of working masses to be exploited. A prolonged, mild population shrinkage based on increasing material abundance and progressive social ideals will go a long way toward ensuring that there are enough resources to guarantee the well-being of all.”
—“In Defense of Science and Technology: An Exchange on Eco-Radicals and HIV Denialists,” WV No. 843,
4 March 2005
The basic goal of Marxist socialism is, by destroying class society and eliminating want, to lay the material basis for liberating the creative powers of humanity, which have been shackled by the capitalist system and earlier forms of class-divided society. Marxists regard the development of the productivity of human labor power as the prime mover of social evolution and the underpinning of historical progress. We look to a qualitative increase in the application of known science and the development of new technology. Ultimately this will liberate the productive capacities of mankind, eliminating economic scarcity—while laying the basis for the disappearance of classes and for the withering away of the state. As Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher remarked in his 1966 speech, “On Socialist Man”:
“We do not maintain that socialism is going to solve all predicaments of the human race. We are struggling in the first instance with the predicaments that are of man’s making and that man can resolve. May I remind you that Trotsky, for instance, speaks of three basic tragedies—hunger, sex and death—besetting man. Hunger is the enemy that Marxism and the modern labour movement have taken on.... Yes, socialist man will still be pursued by sex and death; but we are convinced that he will be better equipped than we are to cope even with these.”