The Famine of Politics

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis shows how deadly the combination of nature, politics and capitalism can be, especially in regard to imperial agendas. Though he details and acknowledges the effects of El Niño on the areas that experienced these droughts, he explains that it was not the lack of food that caused famine, but rather, the colonial, political and economic environment that created the conditions where at least 30 million individuals perished. According to Davis, “Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system,’ but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures (p.9).” Therefore, the world market forces, and the forced participation by colonial overlords, caused grain to be shipped away from the drought stricken areas where it was needed most. He seems to argue that it was the lack of agricultural jobs available, as a result of the famine, that caused widespread famine and death rather than lack of food. Furthermore, he shows that there was enough food available to at least drastically alleviate the famines.

Davis argues that the incorporation of these colonial peoples into the world market destroyed the cultural practices and structures that evolved to combat the droughts that those areas (India, China, Egypt, etc.) were accustomed to seeing occasionally. These systems of local stores and regional transfers of food stuffs lessened the impact of drought and famine on local populations. However, colonial governments determined to set up capitalist agricultural systems that grew food for a global market rather than a local market. Thus, workers depended on wages to buy the food they were growing. Therefore, local problems, such as drought, affected the price of grain in places all the way around the world. Eventually the richest regions/nations could always afford the higher prices, while the poorest regions/nations starved. Basically colonized regions were producing food as commodities rather than subsistence, and any surpluses were bought up by the global market rather than stored in local famine relief centers.

Though he only alludes to it, Davis provides a grim picture of how globalization can negatively affect areas highly vulnerable to dramatic climactic events. It is during these famines of the late nineteenth century that the global market becomes just that, global. Modern Americans ought to be very familiar with global demand affecting gas prices. Ultimately, this book has an interesting mix of economics, politics, and environmental history. He spans multiple fields in his effort to paint a picture of the downfalls of political and economic imperialism. Though he does not give the environment enough credit (or agency for those who prefer that word) for producing the famines, he is effective at proving the global market forces had more to do with starvation than the actual droughts.

As with the other books, Davis is proposing and using an approach that is highly controversial, but appears to be workable. He forces the reader to rethink his or her established beliefs they might have about western imperialism. Davis paints a gruesome picture of these famines, but while doing so, he shows how cultures from around the world come into contact with one another. Furthermore, he is able to include a significant chunk of the world’s surface thanks to the scale of his study. Even better, he argues that global markets, individuals, political entities, colonizers, colonized, cultures, economics, and environment all had a role to play in the dramatic and deadly periods of famine. Perhaps this might be a way of incorporating massive scale into a world history course, by interweaving stories of events that had global implications and players. In any case, Davis has given us an excellent example of world history as an effective field of study.

One thought on “The Famine of Politics

  1. I found this book to be extremely interesting, and as as you state “gruesome.” I was most struck by the situation, I believe in China, where parents would trade their children away because they had to turn to cannibalism and they did not want to eat their own offspring.

    I think that Davis did a great job delineating the story of hunger in certain regions the late 1800’s. I was unfamiliar with this particular topic. I was so surprised that the west clung so tightly to their belief in capitalism and a “hands off” system, that they would actually let people starve to death rather than step in and provide aid.

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