George Walford: Famine

So far as productive and distributive facilities go, famines are no longer unavoidable catastrophes. They are not, in that curious phrase, “acts of God,” If not deliberately caused by human agency they are least allowed to happen, and not altogether at random; in Western Europe, North America and Australasia famine no longer looks like a serious risk, while over large areas in Asia and Africa it remains one of the facts of life. Clearly it tends to occur under certain conditions, but which conditions are the relevant ones?

Amartya Sen has noted that in democratic countries with a free press and an active parliamentary opposition famines rarely occur, but Alex de Waal brings forward one such case: Sudan in 1986-9. Here there was a relatively free press and a parliament with an opposition, but the rebellious southern region was deliberately starved by the government, which endorsed genocidal raiding by the militia and refused to allow free passage of relief food supplies.

Waal adds that this instance, like that of Ireland in the 1840s, turns out on closer examination to support Sen’s rule; in each case the part of the population undergoing famine was considered unworthy of full citizenship by the ruling class. (TLS 13 July)

This still leaves us with the problem of explaining why the ruling class should sometimes consider the whole population worthy of full citizenship and sometimes not – and, for that matter, why there should sometimes be a free press and a parliamentary opposition and sometimes not. The answer can hardly avoid including some conception of stadial development, and it has been shown in Beyond Politics that for the development of society the fundamental stages are best defined ideologically. WHen the ideological structure of a society develops to include, as significant influences, ideologies beyond that of principle, one effect is a reduction in the incidence of famine.

It is with the emergence of the ideology of precision (in British politics liberalism) that society comes to be seen as constituted of separate people all of equal political value; all, that is to say, worthy of full citizenship and hence to be protected from famine. This is an intention, an aspiration, one that produces effects but not always those (or not all of those) it intends. In the 1840s, when the Great Famine ravaged Ireland, this ideology was still relatively undeveloped; only decades later did Gladstone and other liberals (though not, even then, all of them) begin to agitate for Home Rule. In Sudan the suppression of this ideology by the coup shows it to have been, there also, as yet only insecurely established.

Even when fully developed that ideology still accepts hierarchy and private ownership, trying only to modify their effects. It is when the eidodynamic ideologies, with socialism, communism and anarchism, come to exercise influence, that the conception enters of production as a social enterprise, with all members of society entitled to partake of the product by virtue of their membership. Even these ideologies, when trying to assert themselves to the exclusion of the eidostatic ones, do not put an end to famine. On the contrary; where the eidodynamics have gained control of the state the results have included some of the greatest man-made famines.

Deployment of the full power of human society against recurrence of famine requires full development of the ideological structure, with recognition of each major ideology, the individualistic ones that promote production, and the collectivistic ones that establish the claim of all human beings to the product, as working parts of the whole.

from Ideological Commentary 48, November 1990.