Friday, July 24, 2015

Food for Thought (1948)

From the October 1948 issue of the Socialist Standard

During his directorship of the United Nations' Food and Agriculturist Organisation Sir John Boyd Orr won the approval of many people for his work in organising the supply or food to the devastated countries of Europe. Since his retirement from that post he has been tackling the problem of food production for all the peoples of the world. His approach is the direct one; his ideals mere wishful thinking, because conflicting interests in capitalist society, national and international, permit of no direct methods for the provision of a full life for all. 

Among many other things he said (Daily Herald, 29/7/48):
A world of peace and friendship, a world with the plenty which modern science had made possible was a great ideal. But those in power had no patience with such an ideal. They said it was not practical politics.
Within the structure of capitalism it is possible that the politicians are right. Inside the nation a capitalist is guaranteed protection while accumulating wealth by exploitation, providing he observes the rules of the game. Between nations the case is different. The right to trade, to colonise, and to have access to raw materials and natural resources outside their own boundaries must be wangled, bluffed or taken by force of arms. A nation having taken possession can only hold its gains by superior strength. Consequently it is futile to suggest, as Sir John does that: 
If half the effort being spent making tanks, guns. aeroplanes or atomic bombs was diverted to producing the primary necessities of life, gross poverty would be eliminated for the world within the lifetime of our children.
For each nation to cut its fighting forces by half, to convince the governments of all nations of such a necessity, while each is suspicious of its neighbours and scheming to over-reach them, such an idea is, to say the least, laughable. Moreover, Sir John only suggests a reduction in armed strength—or equipment—by half. Even he could hardly visualise capitalism being run without armed forces to deal with dissatisfied sections of the workers from time to time. 

Next Sir John says: 
A world government may evolve from the United Nations' Food, Economic, Financial and other organisations.
But he gives no hint as to which nation will be at the head. Nor does he show how the differences between nations can be reconciled to bring about collaboration in a common policy that would be of lasting benefit to the workers. He says: "Politics was but the shadow of economics" but overlooks the fact that all the power is in political control of armed force. Those who control the political machinery of any nation make the laws designed to regulate production and exchange; and by tariffs, taxes and subsidies encourage or hinder trade in the various industries according to the interests they represent. 

In one of his broadcasts Sir John suggested that the agriculturists and food producers of the world should get together and tackle the problem of world food production by mutual agreement, on the principle that they are the actual people concerned with the production of these commodities. But the very fact that these people are concerned with commodity production makes them suspect. In the past such collaboration between the captains of industry has invariably resulted in limitation, or restriction of output in order to control prices in their own interests. Rings and combines are just as common among agriculturists as other interests. They are not philanthropists but capitalists, in business to make profits. They hold the community to ransom whenever their products fall behind demand. In the past they burned millions of tons of wheat and coffee. Even since the war vegetables have been ploughed back into the soil, fruit has been allowed to rot, and hundreds of tons of fish thrown back into the sea or sold as manure to keep up prices. 

But Sir John still has hopes, in spite of the callous indifference to the needs of the people that is so prominent a feature in the normal life of those with guaranteed incomes derived from industrial enterprise, or to be exact, exploitation. He says: 
These United Nations' organisations throw a light along the road to world peace and plenty . . .  Have we the common sense, the decency, the moral purpose to follow the light? 
Unfortunately these qualities have little or nothing to do with the question. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Sir John hasn't even mapped out a road to his Utopia; while facing him is the inexorable machinery of capitalist finance and power-politics, blind and deaf to common-sense appeals, in their lust for power. 

If the decision lay with the people, he had no doubt what the answer would be. Where they had not been too bedevilled to think for themselves, they all wanted the things the organisation stood for. 
To bedevil means to confuse, and the vast majority of the workers are in a hopeless muddle of confused thinking on political and economic questions. The class that appropriates the major portion of the wealth produced, without contributing towards its production, must be deeply interested in obscuring the method by which it is achieved. The majority of capitalists are, no doubt, quite ignorant of the scientific explanation of surplus value. Yet they all know that the system in some way guarantees them wealth and privilege without effort on their part. Consequently they welcome any theory that keeps clear of this fact, and encourage any shallow, but plausible ideas that only deal with day-to-day occurrences on the surface of capitalist events, This flood of bedevilment is a free-for-all. Politicians, economists and journalists all take a hand, many of them finding it pays extremely well; especially the politicians. The so-called Labour, Fabian and Communist parties are responsible for much of the confusion.

Next Sir John says: 
The carrying out of a world food plan alone would bring a great expansion of world industry and trade such as occurred in the 19th century. 
That possibility should certainly gain capitalist support for Sir John, because the more work there is for the workers, the greater the amount of surplus value from which capitalist incomes are derived, while the workers still only get wages that barely cover their cost of living. But Sir John overlooks one important factor. During the 19th century Britain had a flying start in the race for markets. Today every capitalist country is in the race, and the share of each will diminish with the ever-increasing fierceness of the international race for markets. 

"If food production could not be doubled in the next 25 years," warned Sir John, "we were heading for disaster." Due presumably, to the estimated enormous increase in the world's population on top of tbe present food shortage. We are not told the nature of the disaster that threatens, but unlike Malthus, who visualised the time when there would only be standing room on the earth, Sir John reveals the forces already operating to avert the disaster—whatever it is—when he says: 
Of every three families in the world today, two suffered premature death for lack of adequate food and shelter. 
Sir John may hope that a world government might set a limit to the process. But such a government, especially by agreement, is just a dream, while world government by conquest is a nightmare even to the capitalist and his political stooges. 

Next he says: 
The first right of man was food and shelter to maintain life. The masses today demanded this. And they would get it because they were in a vast majority.
Not merely because they are in a majority, nor because they demand them, will they get these things. They have first to understand why they lack them now. At present the workers, between them, possess all the scientific and technical knowledge, and actually carry out all the work of production and distribution. Their failure to satisfy the needs of all is due to the incubus of trade, commerce and finance; the capitalist machinery of appropriation, that limits production to what the market can absorb. The workers must get rid of this incubus. To do so they must organise politically as a class, in opposition to all parties which maintain the present system. Only when they control the political machinery through their delegates, pledged to carry out the wishes of the workers, will they be enabled to control production and distribution in accordance with their needs. 

One of the greatest obstacles to a clear understanding of their position by the workers, is the bedevilment, or confusion, much of it considered and deliberate, referred to by Sir John Boyd Orr. However laudable his ideals and aspirations his assumption that they can be realised by a world government of capitalists is a false and dangerous fallacy. It is the working-class that suffers under capitalism, and it is only by the conscious and organised efforts of that class that emancipation can be achieved.
F. Foan

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