By SHARON SMITH
WALL STREET millionaires have spent months mourning their losses from once ridiculously overvalued investments. Yet these same free-market cheerleaders remain blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the crisis facing the real victims of the unfolding global meltdown they so enthusiastically enabled.
For the 3 billion people who survive on less than $2 a day, the upward spiral in global food prices has meant a struggle for the most basic of human rights—the right to eat. Rice, bread, and tortillas are the staple food for this half of the world’s population. In 2007, the price of grain rose by 42 percent, and dairy products by 80 percent, according to United Nations figures, and food inflation has accelerated further in recent months. In the last twelve months alone, wheat prices have increased by 130 percent, and rice by 74 percent.
As the Observer noted on April 6, “A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world’s most important staple foods increase by 50 percent in the past two weeks alone is triggering an international crisis.” In March and April, mass hunger spawned violent rioting in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, and Haiti.
Six straight days of rioting rocked Haiti in early April. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day and the typical adult diet consists of just 1,640 calories—640 calories less than the average adult requirement—according to the World Food Program. Haitians have grown tired of subsisting on what has become the common diet: clay, salt, and vegetable shortening. “Protesters compared the burning hunger in their stomachs to bleach or battery acid,” noted the Guardian on April 9.
On April 4, thousands of angry Haitians protested in the southern city of Les Cayes, attempting to set the UN police base on fire while stealing rice from trucks. The rioting soon spread to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where thousands stormed the presidential palace demanding the resignation of the U.S.’s hand-picked president, René Préval. Fortunately for Préval, UN “peacekeepers” eventually managed to disburse the starving masses with tear gas and rubber bullets. Their brutal suppression perhaps prevented Préval from meeting the same fate as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the U.S.-backed dictator overthrown by a popular rebellion in 1986.
Préval has done nothing to stabilize skyrocketing food prices or to assist those on the brink of starvation—and he made clear in a televised speech on April 9 that he has no intention of doing so now. In a Marie Antoinette moment, Préval scolded Haitian citizens, “The demonstrations and destruction won’t make the prices go down or resolve the country’s problems. On the contrary, this can make the misery grow and prevent investment in the country.”
In Egypt, where protests and strikes are illegal, thousands of textile workers and supporters in Mahalla el-Kobra rioted against high food prices and low wages on April 6 and 7. Police occupied the state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving plant overnight to prevent workers from going on strike as they had planned, but protesters responded by setting buildings on fire and throwing bricks at police who were tear-gassing them. Police repression did not succeed in frightening these protesters, but rather further fueled their anger.
Roughly 40 percent of Egyptians survive on less than $2 per day, while the price of unsubsidized bread rose by ten times in recent months and the cost of rice doubled in a single week. The national minimum wage has remained unchanged since 1984, at 115 Egyptian pounds per month. The Mahallah workers have called for a national minimum wage of 1,200 pounds per month—which would still leave a family of four living under the poverty level of $2 per day.
The rioting in Mahalla is the latest episode in the rising class struggle now reaching deep inside Egypt’s working class. Middle East Report and Information Project contributing editor Joel Beinin argued of the growing strike movement, “This is potentially the broadest-based gathering of dissent the Mubarak regime has ever faced. The combination of repression, apathy, and political demobilization that has sustained autocracy in Egypt for over half a century is being forcefully challenged, making it increasingly difficult for the Mubarak regime, if not its capitalist cronies, to conduct business as usual.” Indeed, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif rushed to Mahallah on April 8 to announce he is granting the workers a thirty-day salary bonus and will address their demands on health care and wages.
Five years after the invasion of Iraq, U.S. occupiers have made no effort to spare the conquered population from the rise in hunger sweeping the world. On the contrary, in December the U.S.-backed Iraqi government announced that monthly food rations would be cut in half due to “insufficient funds and spiraling inflation,” affecting 10 million Iraqis dependent on these rations for survival.
Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have estimated the total cost of the Iraq War at upwards of $3 trillion, but there is apparently no cash to spare to provide occupied Iraqis with an adequate diet. Iraq’s chief of staff for the ministry of trade Mohammed Hanoun told al-Jazeera, “In 2007, we asked for 3.2 billion dollars for rationing basic foodstuffs. But since the prices of imported foodstuff doubled in the past year, we requested 7.2 billion dollars for this year. That request was denied.”
The trade ministry has halved the list of subsidized foods to include only flour, sugar, rice, oil, and infant milk, while abandoning the formerly subsidized necessities of lentils, chickpeas, soap, tea, and detergent. Even before the current crisis, the percentage of Iraqis receiving food rations had already declined from 96 percent in 2004 to 60 percent in 2007, according to a 2007 Oxfam International report. The report estimated that “43 percent of Iraqis suffer from absolute poverty” and over half the population is unemployed, adding, “Child malnutrition rates have risen from 19 percent before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to 28 percent now.”
As journalists Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail commented on the Inter Press Service News Agency in December, “Saddam provided more food than the U.S.”
Hunger is also rising in the United States. The unregulated greed unleashed over thirty years of neoliberalism that wreaked havoc on the world’s poorest countries is now exposing the class divide in the world’s richest country. It can no longer be claimed that all of those residing in the global North gain prosperity at the expense of the global South.
To be sure, growing hunger in America has only earned passing reference from U.S. media outlets, which still largely take their cue from Wall Street and the White House. On April 7, for example, Tribune Newspapers preposterously featured an article on the plight of that tiny slice of Americans now curbing their exorbitant spending habits. The article featured a down-on-her-luck mortgage broker forced to forego the Botox treatments for which she once regularly dropped $1,800. “I would rather have Botox than go out to dinner,” the woman told reporters—who reported it without irony.
Food inflation in the U.S. has reached a level not seen in decades, with food staples like milk rising 17 percent over the last year; rice, pasta, and bread rising over 12 percent; and eggs increasing by 25 percent. As job losses mount in the current recession, an unprecedented 28 million Americans are expected to receive food stamps to survive this year. One in six people in West Virginia, and one in ten in Ohio and New York, are now relying on food stamps to survive. And one in three children in Oklahoma have been on food stamps at some time in the last year.
Food stamp “entitlements” are far from generous in the world’s most affluent society, and it is safe to say that most people suffering from rising food prices do not qualify for help. According to guidelines posted on the USDA’s website, a family of four is eligible to receive food stamps only if their net monthly income is at or below $1,721. This same family of four is then entitled to a maximum monthly food stamp allotment of $542—the same amount as in 1996. The average subsidy amounts to roughly $1 per meal per person. And 800,000 mostly elderly and disabled food stamp recipients currently receive the minimum benefit of a mere $10 per month, according to the New York Times.
Mainstream economists have usually described the global food crisis as a food “shortage,” but the shortage has been greatly exacerbated by the merciless laws of the free market. In many cases, the problem is not an immediate shortage of food but merely a shortage of the money to pay for it. World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran recently remarked about sub-Saharan Africa, “We are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. Often we are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it.”
The agricultural/food business is now the second most profitable industry in the world, lagging only behind pharmaceuticals. Indeed, the automaker Mitsubishi, which also controls the second-largest bank in the world, has become one of the world’s largest beef processors, demonstrating the degree to which capital has flocked to the agribusiness sector. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2008 heaped approval on the role of agribusiness, commenting, “The private agri-business sector has become more vibrant. New, powerful actors have entered agricultural value chains and have an economic interest in a dynamic and prosperous agricultural sector and a voice in political affairs.”
But just as agribusiness wiped out small U.S. farmers in the 1980s, it has repeated this pattern around the world ever since. As global justice activist Vandana Shiva wrote in 2006, in India “without market regulation agribusiness corporations will make profits selling costly seeds, buying cheap farm produce, and locking farmers in debt. This has been the process by which the small family farmer has disappeared in U.S.A, Argentina, Europe.”
Now the law of supply and demand has dictated that the new market for biofuels should reduce the production of corn for food by 25 percent in the U.S.—triggering a man-made shortage and a rise in corn prices. Speculators have been hoarding crops on the expectation that prices will rise further. Meanwhile, investors around the world have been fleeing the falling dollar to buy up commodities such as rice and wheat, adding to the speculative momentum and forcing staple prices higher for the world’s poorest people.
The neoliberal agenda long ago lost its shine for the vast majority of the world’s population, although its most earnest proponents have been the last to recognize this stubborn reality. The most recent World Economic Outlook, published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last fall, did note rising inequality in the richest countries: “Among the largest advanced countries, inequality appears to have declined only in France.… The recent experience (of increasing inequality) seems to be a clear change in the course from the general decline in inequality in the first half of the 20th century.”
Yet the IMF remained optimistic about the future of neoliberalism: “From 2002 to the present, the world economy has enjoyed its strongest period of sustained growth since the late 1960s and early 1970s, while inflation has remained at low levels. Not only has recent global growth been high but expansion has also been broadly shared across countries. The volatility of growth has fallen.”
In recent weeks, neoliberal policymakers appear to have finally realized that widespread hunger could ignite a level of protest that threatens the ruling order worldwide. World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently worried on the organization’s Web site, “Thirty-three countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices.”
Perhaps these out-of-touch policy wonks, in keeping with a long-standing bourgeois tradition, should suggest that the world’s poor start eating ethanol. And U.S. workers now looking into the neoliberal abyss should consider following their brothers and sisters around the world in fighting back.
Sharon Smith is the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket, 2006).