Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thoughts on Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts (2002)

In his memoir, Arrow in the Blue, Arthur Koestler recalls an episode from the Depression years in Eastern Europe, when he was a young man: "Meat, coffee, fruit had become unobtainable luxuries for large sections of the population, even the bread on the table was measured out in thin slices; yet the newspapers spoke laconically of millions of tons of coffee being dumped into the sea, of wheat being burned, pigs being cremated, oranges doused with kerosene 'to ease conditions on the market.' It was a grotesque and incomprehensible paradox [...] When people starve and food is destroyed before their eyes [...] then the last judgement must be at hand." (322).

Koestler would go on to become a committed Marxist and eventually a bitterly disillusioned ex-Communist.  In his later peregrinations, he saw a great deal of the brutal illogic of food policy in totalitarian societies, where whole populations were often starved as a matter of deliberate policy (Koestler traveled through the Ukraine, in fact, during the worst phases of the famine that Stalin engineered there).  However, Koestler would never lose the sting of indignation he felt as at the sight of the similar insanities that could take place under "free market" conditions.  The food to which he refers above was wasted, after all, under a regime of liberal capitalism -- and it was wasted deliberately, in fact, in order to jack up food prices still further in a time of scarcity.

Today, history remembers the calamities of hunger produced by centrally planned economies-- the genocidal famine in the Ukraine, the multitudinous victims of Mao's Great Leap Forward, and so on.  Less well-known, however, are the equally apocalyptic "El Nino Famines" of the late nineteenth century, which struck the entire tropical and subequatorial worlds in concurrent waves and left tens of millions dead in their wake.  Like the catastrophes in the Ukraine and Mao's China, these famines were not "natural disasters," but the foreseeable outcomes of deliberate policies pursued by elites out of indifference or outright hostility to the people they affected.  Unlike the former, however, these El Nino famines were not caused by central planning, but rather were triggered, facilitated, and deepened by the dogmatic application of "free market" principles in the colonial world.

Such, at least, is the burden of Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts-- an unrelenting reading experience that is part historical catalogue of horrors, part scientific treatise, and part polemical indictment.  Davis argues that far from the El Nino famines being an expression of the "timeless poverty" of the Global South, they were direct consequences of modern colonial policy-- in particular, of the forced integration of the peasant societies in India, China, and elsewhere into the global economy.  Subsistence farmers and pastoralists in the late 19th century were suddenly being asked to compete with major plantations and ranchers from around the world -- no wonder that bankruptcy, debt peonage, or outright starvation were often the only destinations available to them.

The third destination, starvation, Davis shows, became the final one for tens of millions of people in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere in the 1870s and '90s.  These catastrophic implosions were due to a combination of El Nino weather events, which caused crop failures (probably unavoidable) and ruthlessly exploitative market manipulations met with official apathy (entirely avoidable, as Davis shows, if the Western powers had shown the slightest mercy toward their victims).  Peasant cultivators were already backed against the wall in an impossible "competition" with world agribusiness; a sudden crop shortfall meant that the prices of grain and other basic food shot almost instantaneously through the roof.  Due to the ruthless logic of supply and demand, the more the peasants needed bread the less likely that they could find it at affordable prices.  This promised a windfall for grain speculators, who proceeded,  Davis documents, to attempt to raise prices even more in times of famine by wasting crops, exporting them away from starving areas, and generally increasing scarcity by all available means.

We'll come later on to the observation that some of this sounds familiar from recent experience.  The relevance to contemporary life of these famine episodes, after all, and the hope that they might serve as a salutary reminder to us today are part of the not-so-hidden agenda of this book.

For now though, let it be noted that as much intuitive sense as Davis' historical argument makes in light of current events, it had to be urged against two centuries' conventional wisdom about colonial history.  Early on in Late Victorian Holocausts, Davis mentions the work of Davis Landes, ostensibly the great modern theorist of global inequality and its origins.  According to Davis, the only mention of famine in Landes' monumental The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is the claim that British railways "eased hunger in India." (Davis 8).  This seems to assume precisely the claim Davis wants to call into question: that famine in India was simply a timeless fact and that British policy arrived to rectify it.  (Davis' book was published in 2002, but one suspects the author would be bitterly unsurprised by the vogue for Raj nostalgia that appeared among Western intellectuals after the start of the War in Iraq.  I refer to the jaunty parade led by Niall Ferguson, of course -- a person whom one would like to strap to a chair Clockwork Orange-style and compel to read all of Davis' more harrowing descriptions of the savage hunger in Madras, Bengal, and elsewhere.)

This business about the beneficence of British colonial rule draws on tropes dating back to the 19th century, when it was assumed that the sole cause of India's hunger was its own backwardness -- the "immortal poverty" of the Hindus -- from which the British promised deliverance.  Even 19th century critics like Karl Marx, who clearly perceived at the time the destructive aspects of British economic policy in the Raj, still by-and-large saw this destruction as part of an ultimately progressive trajectory, in which Britain was unwittingly playing the hero's part.  Said Marx in a famous article for the New York Herald Tribune:
"[S]ickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, […] We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances [….] England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution."
Marx's calculus of ends and means here must seem very sinister to us today, having lived through a endless parade of "necessary evils" in recent centuries that are supposedly carrying us along the road to progress.  However, I would say that Marx was right that a "social revolution" in some sense of the term was needed in India to emancipate the victims of caste and rural poverty and traditional evils.  Mike Davis' book, on my reading, is not an attempt to dispute this idea, and he would probably agree with Marx that subsistence agriculture is not an ideal form of life-- that it leaves one vulnerable to local predators and to the sudden and cruel exigencies of nature, like drought and crop failure.

What Davis would dispute with Marx, rather, is the idea that the devastation wrought by British "free market" policy somehow paved the way for progress away from this state and toward something "higher".  Davis' account suggests that such "progress" under the Raj was entirely factitious.  Before the British, India's rural population may have been poor, but it was at least sustained in times of ecological crisis, drought, and crop shortfall by some minimal relations of reciprocity with village elites.  After British colonization, these local ties were disrupted without being replaced by any other guarantee of basic sustenance.  Peasant agriculture in India went from being the hard way of life it had always been to an easy way of death.

A rural poor that was suddenly thrown upon a world market in grain and dependent on consumer behavior in Manchester and Lancashire simply starved: read Davis if you need the photos and contemporary accounts and details to convince you.  Nor were these famines somehow a grotesque prelude to future prosperity.  The British Raj never enriched its victims, contrary to modern Neoconservative apologetics.  The historical sections of Amartya Sen's An Uncertain Glory (2013) show that it is nearly impossible to detect any form of economic "progress"  in the pre-Independence phase of modern India's history-- no matter how narrowly we define "progress" and no matter how callous we are toward those despatched along the road to it, like so many broken eggs in the proverbial omelette.  The conclusion seems to be (as if we needed proof of this) that the El Nino famines and similar catastrophes were destruction, pure and simple, and not some sort of "creative destruction," to use Schumpeter's Orwellian phrase.

As for those trains that Landes imagines chugging across the Indian plains like so many armor-clad saviors, Davis shows that they weren't bringing famine relief to out-of-the-way places-- quite the opposite.  In most cases, they were actually hustling grain supplies away from places of food scarcity as fast as coal could burn.  Why?  It was yet another cynical attempt to raise prices.  "The newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding." (Davis, 26).  So much for those railways "easing hunger in India," as Landes maintained.

The British did eventually offer "relief" in India, but it came with such ghoulish strings attached, as Davis documents, that life in the relief camp could seem worse than death beyond it.  More importantly, because the colonial powers believed that famine was simply an aspect of the timeless poverty of Asia, and not the product of their own rule, then relief could be construed as gratuitous "charity"-- and therefore optional.  Their cruel regime of relief would have been a tougher sell to the British public if it had been presented as what it was-- a case of the Raj offering crumbs with one hand to the people whose bread it had stolen with the other.

While famine doesn't stalk the world today as much as it does in this book's narrative, some things about this story have not changed all that dramatically since the late 19th century.  We still frame "development" and foreign aid as an optional form of charity to the Third World -- a place whose poverty we take to be an ageless and uncaused fact of nature.  The idea that out own governments' policies might be fostering this poverty-- and that our foreign aid might therefore be a finger in the hole in the dike that we ourselves have punctured-- is still as alien to us as it was to the Victorian public.

Just as this book contains dire warnings for us as modern people, however, it also offers hope.  Partly, this comes in the form of a record of resistance from heroic individuals that Davis unfolds alongside his record of atrocity.  Such heroes include many of the victims of the famines who refused to go gently into that good night.  Many in India, for instance, practiced civil disobedience against the orders of British relief officers and risked their own starvation for the sake of better conditions for themselves, their neighbors, and their families.  But the heroes also include many who had no obvious personal stake in the famines, such as early nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chunder Dutt, either one of whom could have settled into a comfortable career in the Indian Civil Service without a peep against the Raj, if they had so preferred.  There were individuals in the West too who chose to make tremendous personal sacrifices for the sake of a cause they could easily have ignored, such as William Digby, the journalist who chronicled the abuses of the British relief effort, H.M. Hyndman, a radical critic of colonial policy, Florence Nightingale, the great humanitarian, and others -- all of whom put the lie to the Brechtian dictum that "only hungry men can feed you."

Admittedly, the heroes often seem to be outmatched by the villains, of whom there are also many memorable examples stalking these pages.  There is Richard Temple, for instance, the architect of British "relief" policy during the 1877 famines, who insisted on such stringent "work requirements" for relief that the sick, the old, the young, and the infirm could not get access to it.  The relief he offered to laborers, meanwhile, came in the form of rice servings which had half the caloric value of the Indian prison diet at the time.  With no protein source, and subjected to daily backbreaking toil, most of the camp inmates simply expired -- under the auspices of British "public charity"!

Then there is the mad Lord Lytton, who spent innumerable pounds on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the same time he was deploring the "gratuitous" character of relief spending, which he thought was only contributing to the age-old indolence of the Indian public.  (Creating a "culture of dependence" perhaps?)  Before reading this book, I only would have recognized Lytton's name from the fact that he was the son of the guy who wrote the lines "It was a dark and stormy night."  I would not have guessed he had helped to oversee a famine that killed about as many people as there were human beings on the planet the year Jesus Christ was born.

But the very insanity of all this-- the fact that it is all a "grotesque and incomprehensible paradox" as Koestler put it-- can itself be a ray of hope.  All too often, the Western powers declared their own helplessness before these famines -- which they claimed were "natural" and "inevitable" (whether for Malthusian or Social Darwinist reasons).  But as Davis reveals time and again, the famines were not in fact "natural" at all-- they required constant and draining effort to bring about.  Davis tells us about private relief efforts that were shut down in British India by the state in order to keep up grain prices.  He quotes the French writer Pierre Loti, who was traveling through India by rail during the famine of the 1890s and who describes passing through a station full of starving children:
"Even now there are four wagons of rice coupled to the train behind and loads pass daily, but no one will give anything to the children, not even a handful, not even the few grains on which they might survive for a little while more.  These wagons are reserved for the inhabitants of those towns where people still have money and can pay." (Quoted in Davis, 169).
Loti recognizes that this is lunacy.  This requires a constant effort of straining against the most basic human instincts and tenets of reason.  This is not the "natural" or "inevitable" way of organizing society, just as it is not natural or inevitable today that corporations should be able to buy up water rights in thirsty lands in order to drive up prices, or that peasant cultivators around the world should suddenly be made to compete against subsidized Western agribusiness in "free market" conditions, to take two resonant contemporary examples.

It does not have to be this way.  Making it this way has required superhuman efforts on behalf of an artificial callousness that needs only the slightest relaxation of the drive toward destruction on our part to bring to an end.  As Bertolt Brecht once wrote: "What a strain it is to be evil"!

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