I have been reading Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis

Wednesday, 6 May 2009 12:25

I have been reading about the great capitalist famines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and what strikes me most strongly about Mike Davis'' thesis is the ineluctable link between the apparatus of capitalism and structural mass poverty and famine.

Professor Davis makes a convincing argument for seeing these late-Victorian famines in places as diverse as India, China, Brazil, Ethiopia and Egypt, as structural products of capitalism, the result of a nexus of improved communication by railroad and telegraph; the destruction of pre-existing communitarian (and therefore anti-capitalist) balances such as the ''iron granaries'' of China; the demand for raw materials and foodstuffs to feed European industrial development; a fanatical belief in what we now call neo-liberalism but which was then called laissez-faire; the desire to exploit the labour surpluses that occurred when starving peasants abandoned land and moved to industrial centres; endemic racism (''it would be a mistake to spend so much money to save a lot of black fellows'' - quoted by Lord Salisbury) combined with the Malthusian dogma that famines were a gift from God to keep human reproduction within the limits of our capability to produce food.*

What Malthus called a ''sickly season'' appeared providentially with the development of extreme weather events which Davis argued were linked to powerful El Niño events during the period in question. So the final turn of the screw that tipped poverty-stricken victims of imperialism into destitution and starvation was bad weather. Imperial exploitation, had, Davis argued, already brought the populations of the colonies to the point where malnutrition was endemic. The destruction of village support systems through things like enclosures and resettlement and heavy taxation designed to force farmers away from subsistence and into export for cash also rendered them ripe for destruction. Finally, the fact that merchants now had access via railroads to the international trade meant that essential foodstuffs had been quietly reclassified as commodities. The commodification of what had been a way of life was the inevitable consequence of colonisation and capitalism.

What strikes me most forcibly, though, is the essential link between the shibboleths of capitalism – free trade, global communication, commodification – and the mass-starvation of colonies and former colonies. Where the railroad goes, hunger follows.

These capitalist famines have usually been attributed to extraordinary weather conditions. Certainly, they concided with extreme El Niño events. However El Niño is a cyclical system. Extraordinary events occurred before and certainly hunger and disease attended them. But the societies afflicted by them survived and hunger is not the same as famine. Famine, Davis insists, ''is part of the continuum with the silent violence of malnutrition that precedes and conditions it, and with the mortality shadow of debilitation and disease that follows it.'' The societies annihilated by the great capitalist famines were not permanently hungry, but prosperous, well-organised ones, with their own mechanisms for coping with all but the most cataclysmic events. Capital not climate, it seems, is the essential ingredient in famine.

As in the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52, there was often plenty of food. Millions of tons of rice were exported from India while Indians died in their millions. The mortality figures are staggering. In Ireland a godly combination of religious prejudice, bigotry, class warfare, British xenophobia, laissez-faire economics, absentee landlordism and the usual racist Malthusian mixture, combined to kill a million people out of a probable population of eight million.

Total figures are hard to come by in Late Victorian Holocausts, partly because of Davis'' correct insistence that mortality is only one product of the capitalist famine. One table – for India, China and Brazil – puts the estimate between 30 and 60 million dead - the upper figure being the most recent and most likely. This figure does not include the vast dead of Ethopia, for example, or of Canada or the USA or Egypt, all affected by famine during these years. But by far the most long-lasting effect was that hundreds of millions of people were rendered useful for capitalist expansion by the simple expedient of eradicating all the comforts and accommodations that sustained their former communal lives. Thus Capitalism created the Third World – a point Davis makes at the end of his Preface:

''As other historians have recently pointed out, when the Bastille was being stormed the vertical class divisions inside the world''s major socities were not recapitulated as dramatic differences between societies. the differences in living standards, say, between a French sans-culotte and Deccan Indian) farmer were relatively insignificant compared to the gulf that separated both from their ruling-classes. By the end of Victoria''s reign, however, the inequality of nations was as profound as the inequality of classes. Humanity had been irrevocably divided. And the famed ''prisoners of starvation'' whom the Internationale urges to arise, were as much modern inventions of the late Victorian world as electric lights, Maxim guns and "scientific" racism.''

Michael Davitt

For an Irishman, there are fascinating side-issues in the book. How Great Famine is used as a template of the way laissez-faire capitalism creates and responds to famine, for example. But most fascinating of all is the influence of Michael Davitt on agrarian agitation worldwide. His name is invoked, for example, by  the radical Bal Gangadhar Tilak who urged the Indian National Congress to adopt Davitt''s radical methods of agitation, calling for popular resistance against tax collections. And Davitt ''spoke alongside Naoroji and Eleanor Marx at protests against Elgin (then Viceroy of India)''. Davitt was undoubtedly our greatest radical figure of the 19th century, though, as James Connolly pointed out, foolishly reliant at home on men who would ''have hung him as high as Haman''. Nevertheless his impact on agrarian agitation and consequently agrarian reform was enormous and, as we see from Late Victorian Holocausts, of international import.

Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis (Verso, London) PB, 2002

* ''The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.''

The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, 1766 to 1834