Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching with barely-disguised glee, the evisceration of a recent Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson – pet historian of the American right – in which he provides a deeply flawed analysis of Barack Obama’s past four years in power. As Matthew O’Brien notes, before systematically working through Ferguson’s argument (or, indeed, ‘argument’), ‘He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again.’
I’m no fan of Ferguson’s. This has less to do with our political differences – in relation to him, I’m so left-wing I should be living in a Himalayan hippy commune practising an obscure form of yoga while teaching Capital to peasants – but because of the way he shapes his interpretations of the past to suit a particular neoliberal agenda.
Of course, no historian is capable of writing an absolutely objective history of anything – nor would we want to because it would be dreadfully boring – but Ferguson presents, and defends, his arguments on the grounds that they are absolute truth.
He was called out on this last year by Pankaj Mishra, in a fantastic review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest for the London Review of Books. In Civilisation, Ferguson argues that
civilisation is best measured by the ability to make ‘sustained improvement in the material quality of life’, and in this the West has ‘patently enjoyed a real and sustained edge over the Rest for most of the previous 500 years’. Ferguson names six ‘killer apps’ – property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – as the operating software of Western civilisation that, beginning around 1500, enabled a few small polities at the western end of the Eurasian landmass ‘to dominate the rest of the world’.
Leaving aside the strange question of why an historian writing in the twenty-first century thinks that it’s possible to divorce the ‘West’ (whatever we may mean by that) from the rest of the world – and even why an historian feels like writing a triumphalist history of Europe and North America (I thought we stopped doing that in the sixties?) – this is a history which largely ignores, or plays down, the implications of modern capitalism and globalisation for those people outside of the West.
As in his writing on the creation of European empires, Ferguson has a problem with accounting for the widespread resistance of Africans, Asians, and others to European conquest – and the violence and exploitation which followed colonisation. Mishra writes:
he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo.
Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about a comment which Roger Casement made in a report for the British government about atrocities committed in the Congo Free State during the late nineteenth century. Writing in 1900, he concluded:
The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain….
The Congo Free State came into being at the 1884-1885 Berlin West Africa Conference, where the assembled representatives of European states acknowledged the Belgian king’s right to establish a colony in central Africa. Leopold II’s International Association – a front organisation for his own commercial interests – was allowed to operate in the region.
There were strings attached to the deal – Leopold had to encourage both humanitarianism and free trade, for instance – but with the sharp increase in international demand for rubber in the 1890s, after JB Dunlop’s invention of inflatable rubber tyres, Leopold’s interest in the Congo, which had only ever extended to exploiting the country for its natural resources, narrowed even further. Leopold operated his own monopoly on the rubber trade, leasing some land to other companies on the proviso that they pay him a third of their profits.
The ‘evil’ to which Casement referred was the transformation of the Congolese population into a mass of forced labourers compelled to contribute quotas of rubber to the various businesses operating in the Free State. Those who failed to do so, those who refused to do so, or those who were suspected of not doing so, faced brutal reprisals from the State’s Force Publique, including being killed, often along with their families; having their hands cut off; and seeing their villages and property burned and destroyed.
It’s estimated that ten to thirteen million Congolese died as a result of murder, starvation, exhaustion, and disease between 1885 and 1908, when international condemnation of Leopold’s regime forced the Belgian government to take control of the Free State.
Although other colonial regimes in Africa could be brutal, violent, and unjust, none of them – with the possible exception of Germany in (what is now) Namibia – managed to commit atrocities on the scale that Leopold did in the Congo. As Casement makes the point, ‘the root of the problem’ was that the Congo was run entirely for profit, and that the businesses which operated in the region were not regulated in any way. This was capitalism at its most vicious.
But what does this all have to do with food? Well I was reminded of Casement’s comment when reading about Glencore’s response to the current droughts – chiefly in the US, but also elsewhere – which are partially responsible for global increases in food prices:
The head of Glencore’s food trading business has said the worst drought to hit the US since the 1930s will be ‘good for Glencore’ because it will lead to opportunities to exploit soaring prices.
Chris Mahoney, the trader’s director of agricultural products, who owns about £500m of Glencore shares, said the devastating US drought had created an opportunity for the company to make much more money.
‘In terms of the outlook for the balance of the year, the environment is a good one. High prices, lots of volatility, a lot of dislocation, tightness, a lot of arbitrage opportunities [the purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from price differences in different markets],’ he said on a conference call.
This weekend, it was revealed that Barclays has made more than £500 million from food speculation:
The World Development Movement report estimates that Barclays made as much as £529m from its ‘food speculative activities’ in 2010 and 2011. Barclays made up to £340m from food speculation in 2010, as the prices of agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat and soya were rising. The following year, the bank made a smaller sum – of up to £189m – as prices fell, WDM said.
The revenues that Barclays and other banks make from trading in everything from wheat and corn to coffee and cocoa, are expected to increase this year, with prices once again on the rise. Corn prices have risen by 45 per cent since the start of June, with wheat jumping by 30 per cent.
What bothers me so much about these massive profits is partly the massive profits – the fact that these businesses are actually making money out of a food crisis – but mainly it’s that these monstrously wealthy businessmen are so unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is, even in the most charitable interpretation, morally dubious.
Barclays’s claim that its involvement in food speculation is simply a form of futures trading is disingenuous: futures trading is an entirely legitimate way for farmers to insure themselves against future bad harvests. What Barclays and other banks, as well as pension funds, do is to trade in agricultural commodities in the same way as they do other commodities – like oil or timber.
In 1991, Goldman Sachs came up with an investment product – the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index – which allowed for raw materials, including food, to be traded as easily as other products. When the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission deregulated futures markets eight years later, for the first time since the Great Depression, it became possible to trade in maize, wheat, rice, and other foodstuffs for profit.
The current food crisis has been caused by a range of factors – from the drought, to the excessive use of maize and other crops for biofuel – and exacerbated by climate change and pre-existing conflicts, corruption, inequalities, and problems with distribution. In Europe, unemployment and low wages will add to people’s inability to buy food – hence the rise in demand for food banks in Britain, for example.
Food speculation has not caused the crisis, but it does contribute to it by adding to food price volatility. I’m not – obviously – comparing Glencore or Barclays to Leopold II’s International Association, but the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State provide an excellent example of what happens when capitalism is allowed to run rampant. Let’s not make that mistake with our food supply.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.