The revolt of the hungry

January 19, 2011

Capitalism's warped priorities produce artificial shortages of the basic necessities.

"WE WANT bread and water and no Ben Ali," read protesters' handwritten signs as they took to the streets in cities and towns across Tunisia. Some waved loaves of bread, symbols of the hunger that drew people into a struggle that ultimately toppled the corrupt 23-year reign of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia isn't alone in suffering the effects of a new global food crisis that has pushed up prices for staples by one-third in the past six months, according to the United Nations. It isn't alone in witnessing furious protests over the failure of the system to provide for people's most basic needs. And it may not be alone for long in seeing hated rulers overthrown.

Anger and despair over the lack of basic necessities--beginning with an unemployed man, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate who set him himself on fire after police confiscated the cart he used to eke out a living selling fruits and vegetables--was the spark, but Tunisia's rebellion quickly broadened into a struggle for democracy and more.

Tunisians march in Tunis for bread and an end to the reign of a dictator
Tunisians march in Tunis for bread and an end to the reign of a dictator (Nasser Nouri)

For a time, Ben Ali hoped to weather the storm through a combination of concessions and repression. But when the end came, it came fast, with Tunisia's previously timid union movement taking center stage and fissures developing in the country's military.

Once the dictator fled to Saudi Arabia, the old order attempted to preserve its power with a "unity government" that incorporated some opposition figures into a cabinet that included former heads of Ben Ali's government. But within days, the new regime was thrown into crisis, with close to a quarter of its ministers resigning in protest, chief among them leaders of the union movement.

Demonstrations are continuing in Tunisia, as are reported confrontations between military units and the hated security forces of Ben Ali's dictatorship. In response, according to Dyab Abou Jahjah, "the Tunisian people have organized themselves in committees that have spread all across the country in every neighborhood and in every city, and started patrolling the streets and protecting the people...The Arab regimes are shaking, and the Arab people are euphoric even in places like Oman and the Emirates."

What comes next is uncertain. But several facts are clear. First, the revolution in Tunisia has proved the power of masses of people to shake even the most seemingly stable regimes. Second, it shows that struggles over basic questions have the potential to develop into far larger political challenges.

And lastly, the revolt in Tunisia has set an example that is already inspiring confidence and action beyond its borders--most of all, in other Arab countries like Algeria, Jordan and Egypt, where masses of people are stirring over the questions of rising food prices, high unemployment and a lack of democracy under corrupt and repressive regimes.

Tunisia--and the threat of more Tunisias in the Arab world and beyond--is sending a powerful message that the free market system is failing for all but a tiny minority at the top, and that the alternative to a world where capitalism can't deliver the most basic necessities lies with the power of ordinary people.

ACCORDING TO a report released last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) food price index jumped 32 percent in the second half of 2010.

The price of sugar, grain and oilseed drove world food prices to a record high in December, the report said, even surpassing levels during the food crisis of 2008 that sparked rioting in countries around the world. "We are entering a danger territory," FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian told the Guardian.

Some of the blame for rising food prices lies with unforeseen and uncontrollable natural events, such as severe flooding in Australia, which is the world's fourth-largest wheat exporter, and poor harvests in Russia and Eastern Europe due to last summer's wildfires.

But the biggest culprit is something at the heart of the system itself, which makes food shortages and rising prices for basic staples a constant occurrence. That's the fact that food is viewed not as a necessity that everyone in the world should have access to by right--but as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit.

It's not that there isn't enough food to feed the world's population--the problem is that the world's poor don't have enough money to buy it. In 2008, for example, 2.2 billion tons of cereal grains were produced--an all-time production record. And yet there was a food shortage that caused unrest around the world, and greater suffering even in wealthy countries like the U.S.

The phenomenon of hunger amid plenty isn't new. But in recent years, Wall Street added a new twist with a boom in speculative trading on agricultural commodities in the futures market. This is out-and-out gambling--with futures contracts, investors basically bet on whether the price for a particular commodity will go up or down. But their investments manipulate the price of food for ordinary people, with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

Wall Street's casino capitalism contributed enormously to the 2008 food crisis. In the same way that banks and investment firms inflated the housing bubble by stoking the mortgage boom of the mid-2000s, speculation caused a buying binge in commodities futures, sending prices through the roof. For example, the cost of the most commonly traded form of wheat, which generally averages between $3 and $6 for a 60-pound bushel, skyrocketed to $25 a bushel by the end of February 2008.

One of the chief villains in this crime was a familiar name: Goldman Sachs. After the Wall Street behemoth convinced its friends in the Clinton administration to loosen government restrictions on speculating on agricultural commodities, it went to town.

This is how food becomes "scarce"--meaning unaffordable--for a billion poor people around the world. As independent journalist Gwynne Dyer wrote recently at

The poor, urban multitudes in these countries (including China and India) spend up to half of their entire income on food, compared to only about 10 percent in the rich countries. When food prices soar, these people quickly find that they simply lack the money to go on feeding themselves and their children properly--and food prices now are at an all-time high.

Another source of turmoil for poor countries has been the neoliberal policies--masquerading as "solutions" in the new globalized economy--imposed by the West via debt institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Over the decades, these international loan sharks demanded "structural adjustment programs" in developing countries--including agreements to privatize state-run industries, relax trade restrictions and cut government spending on social services in exchange for loans.

In fact, Ben Ali's rise to power in Tunisia roughly corresponded with an IMF intervention in 1986 that produced a "stabilization" program through privatization of state-run industries. Over time, the Tunisian government drastically cut state subsidies for staple goods, like food and fuel. And it slashed jobs.

THE WARPED priorities of capitalism, which put profit over human need, breed artificial scarcity of the most basic necessities for human existence--while pretending such shortages are "natural." So we live in a world where part of the population is always on the verge of starvation--and the majority of people have to struggle hard to make sure they put food on the table.

But alongside this irrational system exists the possibility of revolt.

In 2008, people in some 30 countries took part in angry riots against food price increases--among the sites of the biggest protests were Haiti, Mexico, Indonesia and Egypt. Now, the protests are reemerging. In Algeria, according to Emad Mekay of Inter Press Service, "staple food prices such as flour, cooking oil, milk and sugar averaged a 30 percent increase in the four days prior to the break-out of the protests" earlier this month.

"The unrest," Mekay reported, "saw thousands of young people hurl stones at the police, set tires on fire, storm mail offices and government banks, and demand better living conditions and a greater share of the country's oil wealth."

These mass demonstrations inevitably stir anger over other political questions--and with it, a threat to the stability of seemingly unstoppable regimes, as in Tunisia.

The mainstream media here portrays Tunisia's uprising as largely a rebellion against a corrupt dictator. But the revolt is linked to something more fundamental--it's an indictment of capitalism itself.

In that way, Tunisia represents another face of a worldwide struggle in an era of economic crisis--alongside the mass strikes and demonstrations in France last fall against pension "reform," the street battles in Britain when students protested against draconian tuition increases, and much more.

The true face of capitalism has been exposed as a system that can't feed its poor, but can enrich a small elite at the top a million times over--and the only answer of governments, whether authoritarian or supposedly answerable to the people, is bitter austerity.

Their system has proved itself a failure--and with that ugly truth exposed, the opportunities will grow everywhere for resistance to develop and burst onto the scene.

Further Reading

From the archives