Inaugural Commentary: Cities, Hunger, Food Prices, Social Order

Don Nonini

According to the New York Times (January 5, 2011), world food prices are on the rise again to a peak since their previous high point which occurred with the onset of the world financial crisis in 2008. What does this mean for the cities of the world? As Mike Davis reminds us in his book Planet of Slums, more than half of the human population of the world now reside in urban areas, with as many as 1 billion people living in the slums of the world’s megacities. While the majority of the world’s poorest and most hungry populations live in rural areas, still no less than 1/5 of all the malnourished people in the world in 2004 were the urban poor (Atlas of Global Inequalities), and given the hyper-rapid urbanization of the last decade, that number is no doubt even greater today. The extraordinary rapid return of global food prices (for grain, oils, and food as a whole) to an historically high level is being translated on a daily basis into conditions of food insecurity, chronic malnutrition, and outright hunger for scores of millions of the urban poor, in the large cities of the global South. It may be an oxymoron to call such an outcome of perennial global class and racial inequalities a “crisis,” but for the urban poor of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, this represents the most intense suffering, the core of what Nancy Scheper-Hughes calls “the violence of everyday life.”

The condition of the poor residents of the megacities of the global South, who now face harrowing choices as the price of rice, wheat, corn and other staples rise to the highest global levels of recorded history, indexes much about the situation of the deeply unequal world we live in. (E.g., which child or woman is to go hungry or even be left to die while others in the family eat?) The rapid growth in their number over the last five decades has to do with their massive displacement from rural areas of Africa, Latin America, and Asia due to the Green Revolution, civil war, and the seizure of their lands by corrupt state officials, warlords and criminal gangs. The colonial period in which the vast majority of rural cultivators, foragers, and pastoralists had a subsistence base in land and resources outside the capitalist economy has long since passed, and even those few small-scale groups who still have a partial base in non-commodified subsistence are tied to labor migration and monetary remittances, and reside in labor reserves that underwrite the regional labor markets of urban and extractive capitalism.

But the pillage (technically: “primitive accumulation” or “accumulation by dispossession”) continues up to the present. Most recently, state-owned and private corporations from China, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Belgium, France, India, the Netherlands, Libya, and South Korea have purchased massive areas of west, east, and central Africa at fire sale prices from corrupt state officials, intending to convert them into plantations which will export food crops to their affluent urbanites at home. During the first 11 months of 2009, more than 110,000,000 acres were sold off to international “investors” (New York Times, December 21, 2010). Those who previously occupied and cultivated the land remain on insecure tenure, or have been evicted outright. Most such people have gone to or are in process of going to the burgeoning megacities of the global South. These cities in turn have been transformed by the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF into de-industrialized and bankrupted zones of unemployment, illicit trade, and informalized labor where people during the recent “best of times” lived on the edge, but now they’re at or beyond the edge of survival. The wonders of neoliberal “free trade” policies leave them without sufficient affordable food, even as their rural areas are transformed into industrial food export enclaves that subsidize the lifestyles of wealthy urbanites in the global North.

EP Thompson’s classic 1971 essay “The Moral Economy of the 18th Century English Crowd” reminds us that hungry, desperate people can be driven to collective violence, despite whatever else they are willing to put up with. Thompson’s accomplishment was to show that this is no reflex of hunger as such, but rather the heartfelt response to a violation of the implicit social contract between the urban poor of early modern England and the mercantile classes who preyed upon them by manipulating the price of bread. This was the understanding that the latter would never jeopardize the survival of the common people in order to maximize their profits – no matter whatever other predations they were capable of. Such culturally based understandings generate what I recently referred to as repressive ententes in which urban residents put up with most forms of suffering and structural violence as long as elites stop short of inflicting on them fundamental assaults on their survival like drastically increased prices in imported food staples. This was indeed what occurred in mid 2008 with food riots “broke out” in Haiti, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, and with rising discontent elsewhere in the megacities of the global South (New York Times, April 18, 2008).

As urban anthropologists, we continue to investigate and analyze both the suffering and the protests of the poor residents of the barrios, favelas, and ghettos of these megacities of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Beyond the our commitments to the “experience-near” ethnography of misery and anger we customarily undertake, however, we must always remind ourselves of the structural conditions of the world capitalist economy, and of the nauseating conditions of “comparative disadvantage” to which corporations and corporate states now consign a huge proportion of the populations in the world’s largest cities to live through. Perhaps in 2011, we will find out again that many of them have had “enough!” As we witness their anger, we must recall that we are as deeply implicated in the structural inequalities of the global system, including that dividing cities from countrysides, as they are.

Don Nonini teaches Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the President of the Society of Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology


Members of SUNTA are welcome to contribute essays to this blog site that are relevant to the themes of urban, national, and transnational global anthropology. In order to submit an essay for consideration, please see Guidelines for Blog Essay Submission.

All opinions expressed in the essays of this blog are those of their individual authors, and do not represent the official opinions or views of of the American Anthropological Association, The Society of Urban National and Transnational Global/Anthropology, or of the officers of these associations.

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