Tag Archives: food riots

Accumulation by Dispossession

imagesEarlier this week, David Harvey appeared on a panel about contemporary Land Grabs along with activists Somnath Mukherjee, Smita Narula, Kathy LeMons Walker. I unfortunately was not able to attend. In searching fruitlessly for a video of the event, I nonetheless came across some interesting materials online.

The first is a video of a talk David Harvey did with Medha Patkar, founder of the anti-dam organization Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Campaign), and founder of the National Coalition of People’s Movements. This was a fascinating dialogue between a key activist working to roll back land grabs and an theorist who provides an incredibly important overview of capitalism’s strategies of accumulation by dispossession, of which land grabs are a key strategy.  Here’s the video:

I also came across a really interesting blog post by Raj Patel that analyzes a 2010 World Bank report on Land Grabs.

Last of all, I came across my own transcript of the discussion between Harvey and Patkar (I attended the event, which was held in an Occupy-aligned space near Wall Street).  Here’s a link to my transcript.

From the perspective of a cultural critic, I want to ask what forms of hegemony need to be established in order for these sorts of land grabs to take place. Part of the problem may be that many of these activities remain invisible to most of the public in imperial nations such as the U.S.  In this context, it might be worth recalling Fredric Jameson’s argument in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature that colonialism shifted a significant structural segment of the economic system overseas, beyond the metropolis, outside the quotidian experience of imperial subjects, rendering significant segments of everyday life unknown and unimaginable for these subjects.

But while Jameson’s point may make some sense in relation to land grabs, I think it’s important to see such strategies of accumulation by dispossession in a broader context, as part of an ensemble that includes free trade agreements, Structural Adjustment Policies, transnational flows of migrants, food riots, and uprisings such as the Arab Spring.  So ultimately I think a position such as Edward Said’s in the same volume as Jameson makes more sense: to see the anxiety that permeates much modernist (and contemporary) cultural production as a product of the troubling of fixed borders that results from empire. It is probably also worth thinking about land grabs as part of a broader cultural of uneven development. Bret Benjamin’s Invested Interests is an important investigation of the culture of contemporary accumulation by dispossession. I’m sure there are other examples of cultural studies work along these lines. I’d love to hear suggestions…

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Revolutionary Roots

Commodity prices are sky high for the third time in as many years.  While the resulting high prices for food may not be particularly apparent to most Americans, in the global South, this inflation of commodity prices is a life and death issue.

There are many reasons for the recent rise in food prices. Speculation by unscrupulous financiers is one of the more unseemly ones. However, the most significant cause of the high prices is the extreme forms of weather over the last year. There’s little mention of this in mainstream news sources, but Paul Krugman recently wrote a very brave editorial that acknowledges the link between high food prices and climate change.

In a throw away line, Krugman links high food prices to the revolutionary movements sweeping North Africa at the moment.  Surprising to find such a frank admission of the role of food riots in making broader social transformations.  Given the unsustainable nature of our current global food system, we’re likely to see far more political instability and uprising in the future.

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Egyptian Anarchy

The unfolding Egyptian revolution is anarchic. Represented in the Western media as recently as last Saturday as a chaotic uprising with menacing bands of roving looters and criminals (anarchy in the pejorative sense), the Egyptian revolution is largely self-organized by the popular masses.

Not only have the large crowds gathering in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the heart of Cairo been peaceful despite being assembled spontaneously and without any coordinated direction by a particular political party or leader.  In addition, neighborhood watch groups formed throughout Cairo and other Egyptian cities to maintain law and order over the weekend after the dreaded security police – minions of the Mubarak regime – withdrew from the streets following Friday’s dramatic confrontation between police and masses of people in Cairo.

For a very thoughtful discussion of the national-popular and the current wave of uprisings in the Arab world, see this interview with historian Vijay Prashad.

The bankruptcy of U.S. policies of supporting autocratic Arab regimes in the name of fighting Islamism is now apparent for everyone to behold.  Mubarak is not the first dictator to be driven out of office in the Maghreb, and will probably not be the last.  This is an Arab revolution many decades in the making.

The main question now is what will come after the revolution.  Will the self-organizing forces that made the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions be contained or co-opted?  Or will genuinely new forms of egalitarian social and economic structures be assembled?

The history of the IMF-uprisings chronicled in John Walton and David Seddon’s Free Markets and Food Riots is instructive here.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to austerity policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund, popular uprisings exploded around the world, often sparked by precisely the same issues that lie behind current demonstrations: revulsion against authoritarian rule and anger over spiraling food prices.  In those cases, political reform did not lead to significant economic reform.  Precisely the opposite: newly installed democratic regimes implemented the most draconian austerity packages advanced by the IMF and World Bank.

Let’s hope we don’t witness a replay of that history. Surely the great difference between that period – the triumphant inauguration of the post-Cold War Washington Consensus – and the present, when the intellectual and practical bankruptcy of neoliberalism is plainly evident to everyone, surely this difference should spell a very different and more positive denouement.

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Late Imperial Holocausts

In his disturbing but brilliant book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis documents the famine that spread through India during the late years of the British Raj.  Although granaries in many parts of the colony were overflowing, Britain had constructed a transportation network designed primarily to extract food from the rural hinterland.  Grain was transported across the sub-continent along the British-built railway lines, to urban command and control centers such as Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, and then on cargo ships to Britain to support the government’s policy of cheap “corn” for the imperial homeland.  Just as Irish peasants had done during the potato famine, Indian peasants starved while their food was shipped off to their colonial masters.

Two years ago I wrote an article that was published in Counterpunch about the food crisis rippling across the world, leading to “tortilla” riots in Mexico City and bread riots in many other parts of the world.  At the time, I attributed the spiraling cost of basic foodstuffs around the world to the increasing costs of petroleum connected to speculation nd to the production of biofuels.  Large commercial farmers, I argued, would rather produce fuel than food when the former receives a higher price on global commodities markets.

It seems, however, that another factor was at work in the food riots of 2006-2008.  According to a recent article by Johann Hari in the British newspaper The Independent, the spike in food prices, which saw the price of wheat rise by 80%, the price of maize by 90%, and the price of rice by 320%, had another cause.  In order to explain this hitherto unacknowledged factor, we need to take a brief detour to understand how farmers around the world tend to use the market to try to protect themselves from the inevitable risks associated with raising crops.

To protect themselves from vagaries of weather, pests, etc., farmers in wealthy countries for over a century have sold their produce to traders at the end of the harvest season for a fixed price.  If they produce a bumper crop, they’ll make less than they might have if they’d sold their crops on the open market, but if they have a tough year, they’ll make more money than they would have independently and be insulated from the inherent risks of farming.

Such forms of trading in risk once used to be tightly regulated.  Throughout the 1990s, however, powerful speculators such as Goldman Sachs lobbied hard for deregulation.  Food suddenly became a fungible investment vehicle.  It was sliced and diced in the same way as risky mortgages were in the U.S.  Contracts between farmers and traders metamorphoses into “derivatives” that could be bought and sold by investors around the globe.

When the U.S. real estate market began to tank in 2006, speculators stampeded into the global food market.  The upshot was a huge spike in the price of basic foodstuff.  As Hari notes, food crops that were not traded on the open market remained stable while the cost of those that were shot through the roof.  The result was mass starvation and food riots.


Filed under environment, imperialism