The Political Economy of Food in an Unequal World-by Keith Hart

Food in a New Economic Order

What is ‘new’ about neo-liberalism? It is a world economic order based on selective freedom, on the freedom of money to move where it will (but not people, machines, products or information) and on the freedom of strong states to impose their will on the weak.

This describes our world well enough, but it could just as well be described as neo-mercantilism and is no newer than the invention of state capitalism 150 years ago. Then the economic superpower setting the rules for hypocrisy was Britain, today it is the United States. It is hardly surprising that an international economy run by and for states would be unequal. For states were invented in order to supervise the unequal society of agrarian civilization and they were co-opted for their crowd control functions by owners of money who wished to mask coercion and inequality with the old rhetoric of liberal democracy (Polanyi 1944). The state comes with a whole institutional package — a focus on landed property and territorial rule, on the organized use of force at home and abroad, on bread and circuses, on writing and bureaucracy, on control of the money supply and taxation of trade, on ethnic definitions of citizenship and natural symbols of identity — and this does not fit well with freedom of movement, as we all know too well.

Inequality is intrinsic to the functioning of the modern economy at all levels from the global to the local. The rich and poor are separated physically, kept apart in areas which differ greatly in their standards of living. It is impossible to prevent movement between the two areas in any absolute sense, if only for the fact that the rich need the poor to perform certain tasks for them on the spot (especially personal services and dirty work of all kinds). But movement of this sort is severely restricted, by the use of formal administrative procedures (state law) or by a variety of informal institutions based on cultural prejudice. These rest on systems of classification of which racism is the prototype and still the single most important means of inclusion and exclusion in our world. Apartheid is the general name for how we live in society today (Hart and Padayachee 2000).
There is a great lie at the heart of modern politics. We live in self-proclaimed democracies where all are equally free; and we are committed to these principles on a universal basis. Yet we must justify granting some people inferior rights; otherwise functional economic inequalities would be threatened. This double-think is enshrined at the heart of the modern nation-state. Nationalism is racism without the pretension to being as systematic or global. So-called nations, themselves often the outcome of centuries of unequal struggle, link cultural difference to birth and define citizens’ rights in opposition to all-comers. The resulting national consciousness, built on territorial segmentation and regulation of movement across borders, justifies the unfair treatment of non-citizens and makes people blind to the common interests of humanity.

So, apart from the state as a social form, one problem to be overcome is its culture, what Fanon (1959) called ‘the problem of national consciousness’, a myopia preventing people from identifying human interests beyond the level of the nation. But there is another side to it. The cultural content of nationalism was made up largely by urban intellectuals who romanticized the village (Gellner 1983). They posited a national unity by reference to the presumed authenticity of the village. Traditional rural society was conceived of as being outside the social forces making the modern world, both in time and space. The nation then was made with rural imagery at the inner core of a people shaping up to resist the outside forces of modernity. It represents an attempt to slow down the changes generated by urban industry and political revolution. Its slogan is “stop the world, I want to get off” (but I may want to get on again later on my own terms).. It is the fundamental impulse behind the dominance of ethnography in twentieth century anthropology. This is why western farmers, and agriculture more generally, carry a political weight far beyond their contemporary economic importance (Bryden and Hart). And this too prevents a global solution to world food markets, with the West squabbling among themselves over who subsidizes agriculture the more outrageously. So the world’s 2bn or more poor farmers continue to be locked out of world markets. Surely, if their effective entry could be successfully engineered, demand as a whole will rise and the sale of goods and services (urban, not rural) by the rich to the poor will grow. In this sense, redistribution to the world’s poor represents enlightened self-interest for everyone.

There have been two general crises for global capitalism in the last century, and we may be entering a third. They were the 1930s and the 1970s (Hardt and Negri 2000, Hart 2001). Each stimulated a major reconstruction of capitalism’s political economy. And, if we would make a new economic order, we should understand how these earlier crises, especially the second, shaped the conditions we face now. In the Great Depression, Maynard Keynes (1936) offered a solution to national elites concerned that their ability to govern would be overwhelmed by the mass of poor and unemployed generated by the economic system they supervised. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the most explicit response at the time and the USA ensured that all the industrial countries had welfare state economies after 1945. This welfare state consensus underlay the long post-war boom. The rich countries today are similarly cast adrift in a sea of human misery that includes most people alive, but especially the inhabitants of Africa and South Asia. Marx used to say that “the social relations of production act as so many fetters on the development of the productive forces”, by which he meant that capitalist markets could not organize machine production for the benefit of society as a whole. At the most inclusive level the main fetter on human development today is a United Nations world order (still dominated by the USA) that prevents the evolution of new forms of economic life more appropriate to the conditions of mechanization and global integration into which we have so recently stumbled. It also, of course, prevents the implementation of a Keynesian programme aimed at alleviating world poverty by means of redistribution of purchasing power (Stiglitz 2002).

There is a watershed in post-war history and its moment is the mid-1970s (Hart 2001, chapter 4). Some would point to the two OPEC oil price rises of 1973 and 1979 as marking the end of the economic boom; others to the end of empire, the American defeat in Vietnam and the Portuguese revolution. Perhaps the most important change in the long run was the invention of money markets in Chicago in 1975. Cracks were already beginning to show in the West’s postwar boom by 1970. The Vietnam war introduced financial instability to world markets. The oil price rise of 1973 then threw the world economy into a depression from which it has never recovered. The OPEC countries were a cartel dominated by a group of small countries in the Persian Gulf with a lot of sand and next to no people, led by the Saudis. Oil production was organized by American and one or two European companies (“the seven sisters”). We might ask how an economic disaster of this magnitude could be pulled off by a few Arab sheiks sheltering under the military umbrella of the United States. Let us infer that the collusion of the oil companies and of the US government implies that their interests were also served by what transpired (Samson 1976).


The Political Economy of food in an Unequal World. In Marianne Lien and Brigitte Nerlich (eds.) Politics of Food
2004, Berg, Oxford 199-220.