The idea of the starving masses driven onto the streets to demand bread, and then being forced by the violent response of the state to seek its overthrow, had seemed impossibly quaint for decades — the stuff of a distant epoch, kept alive in Broadway musicals and Warren Beatty vehicles in a world where the masses were acquiring cell phones. Bread? Who needs bread? Let them eat arugula at globalization’s ever-expanding buffet table.
But a cursory look at the headlines of the past month — a general strike and mass protests in Egypt, the storming of the presidential palace in Haiti, violent protests in Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon, demonstrations in Uzbekistan, Yemen and Indonesia, among others, suggests that the proverbial “wretched of the Earth” are arising, all over again, this time in response to skyrocketing food prices.
Turns out the Malthusians, and even — gasp! — their Marxist progeny, were not entirely wrong, after all: Spread capitalism to every corner of the globe (a planet already blighted by a century of industrialism with its attendant sometimes catastrophic climate) and the rich do, indeed, get richer, while the poor do get poorer, although not necessarily more numerous. The patterns are uneven, but basic laws of scarcity still prevail. Global food prices have risen 80% over the past three years, and the primary reason may be the success of capitalism in China and India over the past two decades: Their industrialization has spurred demand for energy beyond the capacity of supply, which has pushed oil prices to levels five times what they were in the mid 1990s. That, in turn, has raised pressure on food prices by making agricultural inputs more expensive, and by prompting the substitution of biofuel crops for edible ones on scarce farmland. And, of course, capitalism has indeed raised the living standards of hundreds of millions of people in those countries — they’re eating more, and better, particularly more meat. The fact that it takes some eight calories of grain to produce a single calorie of beef means that the expansion of meat protein in the diet of previously poor Chinese workers also creates a massive increase in global demand for grains. Throw in climate disasters such as the Australian drought, and you have food inflation spiraling so fast that even the U.N. agency created to feed people in emergencies is unable to keep pace.
And the U.N. is warning, for good reason, that food inflation is threatening the security of a growing number of governments around the world — 33, according to the count of World Bank president Robert Zoellick. The sociology of the food riot is pretty straightforward: Even under detested repressive regimes, people’s priority will be to feed themselves and their kids, with political confrontation a luxury that only angry youth, not yet parents themselves, can afford to indulge. But when kids are starving and their parents have no hope of filling their bellies, normally quiescent people can be moved to act, to take risks.
Moreover, when the source of that hunger is not the absence of food per se, but the invisible barrier of social inequalities that stand between poor people and the food supplies their poverty denies them, things can turn pretty nasty, pretty quickly. And that’s precisely what we’re seeing right now: As Josette Sheeran of the UN World Food Program put it last month, “We are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it.”
That’s a situation in which people start to question the very property relations that stand between them and those sacks of rice and bags of beans piled up behind that storefront grill and the riot policemen in front of it. Absent those property relations, all that stands between angry, hungry people and a square meal for the night are a couple of locks or windows to smash, and gendarmes that can be politely, or impolitely, persuaded to give way. (Think post-Katrina New Orleans — “looting” is far too loaded a word to describe people defying the property relations that stand between them and starvation. What, for example, would Jesus have done? Come on, you know the answer!)
Hunger, in itself, is not sufficient to create a political crisis that threatens the very survival of the established order. But in many instances, it has been a necessary component of the despair that forces that has forced ordinary people to take extraordinary risks, confronting those armed to defend the existing order — and, of course, revolutions succeed precisely in that moment when the soldiers and policemen paid to defend the existing order look into the eyes of the “enemy” confronting them, on the streets, and they see themselves, their families and neighbors, and the state’s power to enforce its rule evaporates. As the great Bertolt Brecht once noted, “General, your tank is a powerful vehicle it smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men. But it has one defect: it needs a driver.”
The French revolutionaries demanded bread; the Bolshevik slogan in 1917 was “Land, Bread and Peace.” Many of the revolutions and civil wars of Africa, Asia and Latin America in the last century were spurred by food crises. But for a mass outpouring of rage spurred by hunger to translate into a credible challenge to an established order, a second necessary component would be an organized political leadership ready to exploit the situation.
That’s why I’d say Egypt may be one of the most vulnerable regimes in the present crisis. The Mubarak regime is unable to function democratically, reverting once again to wholly sham elections (rather than the partial shams that have allowed the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which everyone knows would sweep a democratic poll, to win a share of the seats in parliament). Detested for its autocracy, its violent authoritarianism, its supplicant relationship with the United States, and the sclerotic social system over which it has presided, the Mubarak regime has nonetheless been kept in place by the threat of force. Fearful of another strong showing by the Brotherhood, it barred most of its candidates from running, and the Brotherhood has called a boycott.
But the food crisis has impeded the regime’s ability to provide the heavily subsidized bread that has been a major part of its strategy for keeping things docile. And the result has been an upsurge in strike action and confrontation. Thus far, the Brotherhood says it’s staying out of it. But as the pressure mounts, well, let’s just say that in Egypt, unlike many other regimes challenged by the food crisis, there is a nationallly organized opposition functioning in the conditions of twilight legality that make a political organization better able to withstand repression, and which sees itself as the legitimate expression of popular democratic aspirations. Just a guess, here, but I’d say the inability of the Mubarak regime to secure popular legitimacy, the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a food crisis that is raising the level of hunger among ordinary Egyptians might just combine to create a perfect storm.