within the Communities that Feed Us – A Historical Materialist Approach
This paper explores the contradiction of hunger within communities and nations that produce food, by tracing its origins in the capitalist structure of the food system. The historical materialist context of capitalist agriculture is first given, to flesh out the arising differences between farmers and their access over the means of production. By comparing the different exploitative means and exchange pathways at play, food is understood as a commodity to be bought and sold. Next, the various innovations within the system are analysed which caused the restructuring of local and eventually global agriculture. Hence, similar themes of exploitation and purchasing power are translated onto the level of nations. After discussing the implications of these inherent mechanisms, I conclude that hunger can be attributed to asymmetries in food access based on differences in purchasing power between individuals, communities and nations. This poses questions as to how effective new agricultural innovations and trade liberalisation might be in solving hunger if they overlook the underlying issues of food access and commodification.
While hunger is not a new phenomenon — famine and natural disasters have always been a natural occurrence — the term ‘food insecurity’ is. Food insecurity is characterised by the lack of reliable access to an adequate quantity of nutritious food; it is essentially hunger, but with the grave connotations of being in the long-run. Interestingly, food insecurity is experienced in the largest proportions by the developing countries — economies known for their strong agricultural and primary sectors (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2019). With vast numbers of people working in this sector and under the poverty line, it is often these people, communities and nations that grow food that face the burden of hunger (Elver, 2018, p. 2). This contradiction begs the question: how is it that the hands that feed us are often the ones that go hungry?
To address this apparent paradox, the aim of this paper is to explore the food system within the historical capitalist context under which the former arises. In order to do this, I consult the state of farmers, both in the past and present, and their positions in the food system, i.e., whether they are small farmers, contracted workers, or large, land-holding entities. Additionally, I analyse this at the local and global scale to bring to light how these issues play out today. Together, these factors help bringing to light the state of food insecurity in the world today within its context of the capitalist system.
Since I employ a historical materialist approach, a brief history of the origin of the capitalist agricultural system is given. I explore this first at the local level in Britain, where the initial capitalist structure of the food system arose. Moreover, this system of agriculture was eventually imposed onto Europe’s colonial subjects, which is why I have chosen Britain as the starting point of this historical analysis (McMichael, 2009, p. 161). Following this, the globalisation of the food system is understood in order to contextualise the present situation. By using these historical contexts, I apply the Marxist framework stated below to better understand the modes and relations of productions, and how they gradually changed. In this way, the contradiction of farmer hunger is analysed.
Understanding this contradiction of hunger prevalent in communities and nations that produce food remains a pressing issue today, especially because we are constantly made aware of our lack of resources to feed an increasing population (Carolan, p. 26, 2013). Putting aside the debate of whether there are enough calories to feed the world, the contradiction points towards hunger in today’s generation as something that does not occur simply as being due to shortage or physical access. If the latter is true, it is then imperative to understand how this contradiction can come to exist to understand food insecurity today. To explore this contradiction, I take the capitalist nature of the food system as the basis for this analysis.
To explore and analyse thequestion of hunger in the hands that feed us, I employ a Marxist approach which will deconstruct the capitalist agricultural system within which this contradiction arises. Firstly, I adopt an approach of ‘historical materialism’. Essentially, this entails analysing the material conditions of production within political structures to inform social relations (Wolff, 2017, para. 1). Additionally, I explore the themes of accumulation, innovation and exploitation within the system. For this, the two circulation pathways outlined by Marx (1982), namely CMC and MCM’, are explored, along with their implications for the capitalist food system. Together, these methods are particularly appropriate here, as they allow us to identify the contradictory occurrence of hunger amidst surplus within the capitalist modes of production.
However, instead of following a deterministic approach where the latter determines the former, I consult the conceptual framework derived by Harvey (2010). Drawing from a footnote in Marx’s Capital (1982), Harvey lays down six conceptual elements which reveal transformations rather than cause changes in one another, namely: modes of production, technology, relation to nature, social relations, reproduction of daily life, and mental conceptions of the world (Harvey, 2010, p. 192). This offers a tangible application of historical materialism, wherein each of the elements is internalised within the others to compose the totality of a historic moment. Thus, by distancing itself from a deterministic logic, it allows for a more nuanced understanding of the capitalist food system within which the contradiction of hunger arises.
Circulation within the Capitalist System
Marx argues that capitalism is inherently distinct from previous forms of economic systems; it is characterised by not only the exchange of commodities, but by the advancement of capital. This is facilitated by the purchase and processing of commodities to add value, which is in turn used to demand a higher price, thus creating a profit (Wolff, 2017, Economics, para. 2). In order to do this, a constant investment of capital is needed, making accumulation imperative to this system (Harvey, 2010, p. 257). This importance placed on the ‘movement’ of capital and the constant need for accumulation is pivotal as it is reflected within the modes of production and Harvey’s other conceptual elements (Harvey, 2010, p. 193). The process of creating profit, or surplus value, is defined by the circulation path MCM’: money-commodity-money’ (Marx, 1982, p. 248). Associated with capitalists, it entails buying in order to sell for a price, where the resulting difference in exchange values demarcated by M’ signifies the profit (Marx, 1982, p. 257).
Yet, the creation of this surplus value remains unidentifiable within MCM’ alone. When consulting its inverse, CMC, and the overlap between the two, it is demonstrated that surplus is created both within and outside circulation. In the context of the proletariat, CMC entails selling one’s labour power for wages for the sake of basic consumption, after which nothing remains (Marx, 1982, p. 250). This entails a qualitative change in use-values, in contrast to the quantitative change in exchange-values seen earlier. Examining both circulations simultaneously to investigate the origins of M’, Marx points in the direction of the factory for the creation of surplus value, for it is here that exploitation based on surplus labour facilitates the production of more than its own worth (Zwolinski & Wertheimer, 2017, Marx’s Theory of Exploitation, para. 4). The discrepancy between value created and money awarded, in terms of profits and wages, leads to a fundamental asymmetry in purchasing power which reveals itself in social relations. However, this process is imperative in the pursuit of constant accumulation (Zwolinski & Wertheimer, 2017, Exploitation and Fairness, para. 27-28).
Therefore, consulting these two circulation pathways simultaneously brings to light the exploitation and appropriation that occurs in order to achieve capital accumulation. This is because the latter is none other than the surplus value created by workers, which is appropriated for the benefit of capitalists. Moreover, money plays an important role here, facilitating the exchange of different commodities with qualitatively different use-values (Harvey, 2010, p. 55). Reducing the value of all commodities to their exchange- or monetary values overlooks important distinctions in essential commodities (Magdoff, 2012, p. 18). In this system, food, although essential to survival, is reduced to a commodity available at a certain price (Harvey, 2010, p. 297).
When this logic is translated onto the context of the food system, adhering to the capitalist circulation pathways can result in several changes in the way the former is organised. In order to analyse its repercussions on the conceptual elements, it is first important to understand the historical context within which capitalist agriculture arose.
The Rise of Capitalist Agriculture
The transition to a capitalist agriculture system from a feudal one can be identified roughly in the seventeenth century in Britain, during the Agricultural Revolution (Bryer, 2006, p. 368). While the preceding feudal system was characterised by the direct appropriation of the labour, commodities and services of self-sufficient peasants, the following capitalist system marked a shift to the extraction of the surplus value created by wage labourers (Bryer, 2006, p. 370). A pivotal point here was the privatisation of agricultural land and production, under the Enclosure Acts from 1760 to 1830 (Hobsbawm, 1996, p. 31). The enclosure of the commons consolidated most of the agricultural land into the hands of the capitalist landlords, causing the proletarianisation of substantive parts of the population into wage labourers (Wood, 2013, p. 27). Due to this, workers were ‘freed’ of their rights of use over land or other means of production and were only left with their labour power to sell (Marx, 1982, p. 272). Thus, agricultural land was tilled and cultivated by those that did not own the land, but instead worked for wages.
In this way, social relations changed based on this divide between the capitalists who had increasing control over the means of production, and the proletariat who was reduced to its labour power only (Hobsbawm, 1996, pp. 48-49). These fundamental changes in the organisation of the economy and society were also reflected in Harvey’s other conceptual elements. The reproduction of daily lives was drastically affected, since the local food system was no longer based on communal trade and use of resources but was, through the industrialisation of agricultural practices, driven by output and productivity (Hobsbawm, 1996, p. 31). Since several farmers laboured in exchange for wages, they could only purchase what their subsistence wage allowed them to, despite having grown the food themselves. This brought them into the CMC pathway, where they sold their labour for wages, with which they could purchase the very food they had grown. Yet, the exploitation through subsistence wages ensured that they would continue working each day, at least for the sake of affording the same food for dinner.
The plight of small, struggling independent farmers seems different on the surface, since they were not employed and arguably not exploited in the same manner. However, despite not selling their labour power as in the CMC circulation, they were still affected by market factors determined by large capitalist farmers. The increasing food supply, an important characteristic of the agricultural revolution, caused unforeseeable price fluctuations which affected production (Mingay, 1963, p 127). This, coupled with the lower costs borne by capitalists, made evident that by exploiting their working labourers, capitalists indirectly set the maximum price small farmers could charge by competing on the same markets.
Additionally, the adoption of specialisation and efficiency-driven measures by capitalists could not be attained by smaller farmers (Bernstein, 2009, p. 27). These changes in agricultural practices and outputs in this period further led to fluctuating phases of profitability and losses (Mingay, 1963, p 127). While the capitalist landowners owned enough capital to navigate through these periods of depression, small farmers were driven out amidst these economic conditions, until they only represented a small minority (Mingay, 1963, p. 127). It becomes evident here that although they own their means of production and are not employed for their labour, this system resembles the CMC pathway more than it does the MCM. This is because small independent farmers are confined to surviving hand-to-mouth for the attainment of food for its use-value, leaving nothing behind.
These changes in the conceptual elements can be seen as grounded within the shifting mental conceptions of the world. By reconfiguring the modes of production, the creation of a ‘capitalist mentality’ towards food can be identified amidst the Agricultural Revolution. This encapsulates the redefinition of economic success, pursuit of privatisation, extraction of surplus value, and emphasis on labour productivity (Bryer, 2006). Hence, it can be argued that this was the mentality which drove much of the revolution – and as a result, the transition to a capitalist agricultural system.
Capitalist Solutions to Hunger
This capitalist mentality influenced not only how the new food system unfolded, but also how its problems were tackled. Through this capitalist lens, the position of not having enough food or money was understood as a problem of not growing or working enough (Bryer, 2006, p. 371). The pursuit of productivity could be seen in small farmers, wage labourers and capitalist landowners amidst the revolution alike, albeit in different ways. For small farmers and wage labourers, this entailed an emphasis on labour productivity. This emphasis can be seen as a mental conception, as the perpetual call for productivity to earn more assured that they would work under these exploitative conditions (Bryer, 2006, p. 371). While this was also true for landlords, who aimed to keep costs low and input productivity high, the drive for accumulation also led to an emphasis on technology.
Instead of questioning how surplus was being distributed, farmer and peasant hunger was viewed as an issue of inadequacy in the local food system; the issue of distribution was diverted to one of production. This, combined with the pursuit of accumulation, seemed convincing enough to beg for technological innovation. One of the important changes included the increased prevalence of monocultures, a pre-existing method employed in agriculture, in order to produce more efficiently (McMichael, 2009, p. 147). This was based on production by efficient allocation – growing according to one’s strengths and comparative advantage – instead of cultivating ecologically self-sustaining farms which relied less on external inputs (Carolan, 2013, p. 30). However, this came with the increased issues of pests and crop failure, which eventually led to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides (Shiva, 1993, p. 95). Each problem that arose from the pursuit of productivity was followed with a capitalist solution. In this way, the perceived need to constantly grow was arguably internalised in technology and its marketing.
These underlying conceptions, along with the competitive market prices and high yields, made it futile to resist adopting technology. In itself, technology could have been a beneficial advancement, to allow for food security without the laborious work of farmers. However, the repercussions of these new practices slowly revealed their ironies, for they arguably made matters worse for most small farmers (Shiva, 1993, p. 94). While production did increase, what was not foreseen was the eventual dependence on these new inputs of pesticides and fertiliser that needed to be purchased from outside the farm. Instead of a self-sustaining farm with low costs, small farmers now had to purchase several inputs each year, the costs of which were barely made up by harvests (Shiva, 1993, p. 171). This was again worsened by the falling prices of food because of newer technology and increasing food supply. Hence, small farmers were, once again, in the inevitable loop of producing as much as possible in order to make enough money to sustain themselves (Shiva, 1993, p. 177).
The prevalence of monocultures added to this issue, since small farmers were under pressure to earn enough by selling their crop, in order to buy more of another. This degree of specialisation meant that they were solely dependent on the money they earned from their harvests to ensure a proper diet. Essentially, they had to exchange different use-values based on the exchange-value of their own crops. This entailed an increased reliance on money in order to carry out this transaction. Gradually, these small farmers start baring closer resemblance to the CMC circulation path, where they sold one crop for money to buy another. Despite not selling their labour power, the very self-reinforcing cycle that was supposed to make them free now restricted them within these modes of production to constantly generate output, simply to maintain subsistence consumption. Much like the CMC pathway, virtually nothing remained at the end of this consumption. It can thus be argued that their only goal was to work so that they wouldn’t starve.
From a Local to a Global Level
Viewing this in the context of the current food system requires yet another aspect addressed, i.e., the global level at which the capitalist agricultural system now operates. While the Agricultural Revolution had spread to Europe, the translation of this system from Europe to the rest of the world can be traced to colonial and imperial interactions. This period saw the restructuring of indigenous agriculture, by transposing the values of the agricultural revolution onto colonial subjects (Friedmann, 2005, p. 236). Moreover, this reorganisation was aimed towards fuelling the Western industrialisation effort, with the import of food grain and livestock from its colonies. The gradual erosion of indigenous methods of agriculture therefore made way for new the ‘modern’ practices of monoculture and external pesticide and fertiliser use (McMichael, 2009, p. 141). The colonies not only adopted ‘modern’ methods for increasing productivity to export its food products, but also produced in accordance to the needs of its colonisers (Holt-Giménez, 2017, p. 32). In this way, colonies fuelled capitalism’s unfolding, the industrialisation effort, and eventually, contributed to the World War efforts by supplying resources and food grain through these food pathways (Friedmann, 2005, p. 238).
While the process of decolonisation freed these colonially-subjected pathways, agricultural systems continued to operate under the same structures established before, and took the form of neocolonial pathways. Marx emphasises how the need for constant movement within capitalism drives the innovation of efficiency to go beyond factories and markets, to the level of nations. This becomes evident in these neocolonial pathways which paved the way for capitalist food systems to play out at the global level. Gradually it becomes visible that division of labour and specialisation also translates internationally (Fröbel, Heinrichs, & Kreye, 1978). The same way hunger was used as an incentive to introduce technology, the global concept of food insecurity drove new changes. In the way that food systems within economies had to be specialised, each country now specialised to its comparative advantage in order to increase productivity in the global food system (Carolan, 2013, p. 21).
This meant that to deal with food insecurity in the world, countries should produce at an optimum level, and subsequently exchange it with other countries selling other commodities. This, of course, required structural changes with liberalisation of trade in order to efficiently allocate food (Carolan, 2013, p. 26). While on the surface this played out to be an idealistic situation where food would be allocated based on need, the fact that the food system was operating in a capitalist context meant that market allocations would be based on money instead. This transition to the globalised food system thus laid down several dangers for economies that were previously self-sufficient. The issue here is not one of trade, but of increased dependency within the way a capitalist system functions. While the globalisation of the food system was set out to resolve food insecurity, specialisation and trade at the global level once again relied on market allocation. This brought food allocation back to the mercy of purchasing power. The implementation of these changes overlooked the fact that food was still not catered to need, but to demand, which must be backed by the ability to purchase (Holt-Giménez, 2017, p. 58).
Hence, trade would still draw drew food to the pockets of the rich, albeit across greater distances. While colonialism saw the oppression of countries in their restriction to grow profitable crops for its colonists, this was done freely in the guise of market allocation, where food went to the highest bidder (Holt-Giménez, 2017, p. 150). In doing so, social relations were reconstructed at the global level, where countries in the Global South, which produce a large proportion of food, often face higher food insecurity (Carolan, 2013, p. 28). This is also seen within countries, where the farmers constitute the poorer classes, unable to purchase their own food. So strong is the clutch of purchasing power that it can snatch food away from the hands that grow it.
The underlying implication here, whether at the local or global level, is that food is just another commodity. Although its use-value is tied to the necessity of life, its exchange value is that of a regular commodity to be bought and sold. It is no longer synonymous with nourishment, but with capital to be made profits on. Whereas the capitalist system arose with class distinctions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the capitalist food system today consists of several classes, which perhaps makes it less obvious to identify class inequalities. The farmers producing the food and the industries processing it fall in different classes, based not only on differences in income but also in their relations to production (Sen, 1982, p. 15). Rooted to this is the idea of where the most value is added in the food production process, since growing food fetches little, while industries capture the most value added by means of processing, marketing and retailing (Weis & Weis, 2007, p. 42). This is internalised in the way countries are measured on development, since those in the primary sector create lesser value than those in the secondary and tertiary sectors (Kenessey, 1987). In an economy’s pursuit to development, the outcome is then to aim for higher ranks within these chains. Based on an economy where food is not about need but about demand, it may then be understandable and even rational for industries to hold onto their food commodities rather than give it to those going hungry. It is financially viable to do so within the capitalist system.
The contradiction sought to be explored regarding the prevalence of hunger among farmers can therefore be analysed within this Marxist framework. In doing so, it reveals the origins and rationalities of hunger. Within the capitalist system, where food is reduced to simply a commodity, the reliance on exchange values and price results in inequality in food access. It is more tragic than ironic that the resulting food insecurity is too often borne by farmers themselves. Working under the capitalist mentality of production, where they must always produce more to make ends meet, they are fighting a battle that likely cannot be won within the capitalist system. The constant and inevitable innovation ensures this; especially when done in the guise of solving hunger and farmer poverty. Due to these conceptions so inherent in our daily lives, we can unquestioningly observe a system characterised by overproductionadvocating technology to combat the scarcity of food — a scarcity which may not lie in food production, but in food access.
However, applying Marx’s approach on this fairly simplistic and reduced model overlooks the various complexities that need to be addressed within the system. As Marx advocates the importance of movement, the Marxist approach to this question must also be reviewed to capture changes in recent history with globalisation and Neo-liberalism. In the context of the present food system, this paper also overlooks the importance of policies in the allocation of food, and its consequent implications on both hunger, but also over-nourishment. Despite overlooking realistic complexities, this model reveals the underlying themes and ideologies that play a role in hunger. Further, it can be applied to help understand the food landscape today, and its constant struggle to provide enough for the growing population. With new technology such as in-vitro meat and GMO’s to tackle the problems of food shortages, it must be questioned: to what degree will these implementations be effective, and whose pockets will eventually be benefited?
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