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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

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For whom do the FAO and its director-general work?

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A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

For farmers small and large?  For the tens of millions of food-consuming households, poor or just getting by?  For the governments and bureaucracies of small countries who want to import less and grow more?  For the organic cultivators on their small densely bio-diverse plots?  Or for the world’s large food production, trading, and retail corporations, whose influence is wide and whose power is vast? [This is an extract from the full article at Monthly Review’s MRZine.]

FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva

There is the continuing if travel-stained hope — held by so many of us, those who work at humble stations in the food and agriculture sector — that, of all those whom the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO of the United Nations) does work for, it is not that last.  But, since 2011 June, when José Graziano da Silva became the head of the FAO, the signs have been otherwise, and they are growing stronger with each passing month.

What effect does this have on the way the 190-odd member states of the UN deal with agriculture and food, with nutrition and food security, with making food affordable?  A great deal.  These are questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two.  If you read this passage, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more insidious and destabilizing point of view:

. . . [S]ome of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved.  Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present.  Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved — this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before.

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen of India, and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960.

Sen appealed “… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution.”  He said: “While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development.”

The FAO 'real' food price index. What will a private sector 'political commitment' do to these trends?

The FAO ‘real’ food price index. What will a private sector ‘political commitment’ do to these trends?

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished.  How could they have been?  In the years — the decades — since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded . . . but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Only the armory of the food giants today is far more potent than it ever has been.  And still more powerful will they become, if championed by the FAO as they currently are.  Graziano da Silva at the end of 2012 November said that the private sector can make an important contribution to the fight against poverty and hunger and promote sustainable food production and consumption.  Where did he say this?  At the FAO Headquarters, to participants whose associations represent more than five thousand companies, during the first in a series of planned dialogues on what the FAO is calling “private sector involvement in poverty- and hunger-reduction initiatives.”

This is deeply worrying.  Food companies, global grain traders, commodities exchanges, multi-national food retail chains, and large processed-food corporations have been using all the means they could muster to influence the FAO during the 2001-10 decade.  Now, under Graziano da Silva, the gates have opened wide in a manner that was still resisted during the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Diouf (1994-2011), and could hardly be countenanced during the tenure of Edouard Saouma (1976-1993).  What would those who came before — A. H. Boerma (1968-1975), B. R. Sen (1956-1967), P. V. Cardon (1954-1956), N. E. Dodd (1948-21), and J. B. Orr (1945-1948) — have thought of such a swerve marketward?

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

The signs came early.  In 2011 October, for the World Food Day of that year, Graziano da Silva in an article wrote of “boosting investments in agriculture and food security” but didn’t say whether he meant public investment or private.  What he did do was extol what he believes are the benefits of “boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities,” as the FAO release of that day explained.  The director-general’s words were: “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again.”

It was a turn of metaphor that, when similarly used by him in an article about eleven months later, infuriated 109 farmers’ and peasants’ movements and associations.  Graziano da Silva and Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September 2012.  In the article, they called on governments and social organizations to embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production.

mrzine_logo“The language used by Graziano da Silva and Chakrabarti is offensive,” said the signatories to the common statement issued by the 109 organizations.  “Phrases like ‘fertilize this land with money’ or ‘make life easier for the world’s hungry’ call into question the FAO’s ability to do its job with the necessary rigor and independence from large agribusiness companies and fulfill the UN mandate to eradicate hunger and improve the living conditions of rural people.”[You can read the rest on MRZine.]

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Written by makanaka

December 5, 2012 at 16:35

The stranglehold of finance capital over the state

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Women collect coal scraps from an overburden dump for a nearby open pit coal mine. Overburden is the fertile soil (formerly used for agriculture) that has to be removed to get at the coal underneath. In the process small pieces of coal are also picked up which are scavenged by local villagers to be sold for cash. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

Is ours the age of the struggle between the state and the market? Or is it the age in which the state bowed to financial control over it? From a perspective which integrates labour, environmental stewardship, cultural safeguarding and a just human development, the state is firmly in the grip of finance and its liberalisers.

What has come to be called neo-liberalism is in short the expression used to describe the relentless and growing control of resources of every sort, be they mineral, human or environmental. If there has been a problem of neoliberalism it is that it failed to increase the rate of profit consistently and never achieved levels comparable to those of the ‘Golden Age’ between 1948 and 1973. The series of ‘booms’ of various kinds, which caught the attention of investors, bankers and speculators, have had much to do with the seeking to replicate the conditions of those years (in Deutschland they called the period ‘die Fette Jahre’, the fat years).

Boys carry large lumps of coal that they have scavenged from an open pit mine near Dhanbhad. They will carry this coal several kilometres to sell in a local market. As mining has displaced agriculture, scavenging for coal on the edge of mines has become one of the means of survival for those who have been displaced from an agricultural life by mining. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The essence of financial liberalisation, seen in its totality, is to ensure the stranglehold of finance capital over the State, Prabhat Patnaik has explained in a commentary in People’s Democracy (the weekly organ of the Communist Party of India Marxist). This may appear paradoxical at first sight: as the term ‘liberalisation’ appended to ‘financial’ suggests, the basic aim of the process is to liberate finance from the shackles of the State, ie, to ensure not the control of finance over the State but the negation of the control of the State over finance. But the remarkable aspect of financial liberalisation consists precisely in this: what appears at first sight as the liberation of finance from the shackles of the State is nothing else but the acquisition by finance of control over the State.

In his short essay, ‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008’, Neil Davidson has explained that these booms were the result of the following factors which he enumerates as under:

The first and most fundamental was simply greater exploitation of the workforce, by increasing productivity on the one hand (making fewer workers work harder and longer) and decreasing the share of income going to labour on the other (paying workers less in real terms).

The second was the expansion of private capital into two new areas: first through the expropriation of the remaining ‘commons’ in the Global South, releasing value which had previously been embedded in nature and hence unavailable for the purposes of accumulation; then through privatising state-owned industries and public services, providing resources which-potentially at least-could be used directly for production rather than in the process of realisation or as part of the social wage.

The third was the emergence of new centres of capital accumulation outside the established core of the world system in East Asia and above all, in China, which contributed to a partial restoration of profitability as a manufacturer of cheap consumer goods for Western and, above all, US import markets, and as the source of loans to the US through Treasury Bonds, which are then loaned again to American companies and consumers.

The fourth, itself a result of profit rates failing to consistently reach what capitalists considered acceptable levels, was a fall in the proportion of surplus value being invested in production and the rise in the proportion being saved, to the point where the latter became greater than the former. The need to find profitable uses for surplus capital, where productive investment was insufficiently attractive, tended to draw industrial capitalists towards financial speculation. This did not mean that industrial capital became subordinated to financial capital – rather, their interests converged.

A series of murals painted by the Tribal Women's Artist Collective from Hazaribagh. The collective attempts to keep tribal artistic traditions alive in the face of population displacement from tribal areas due to the spread of mining and the conflict between the India army and Maoist guerillas. The designs and styles are unique to each individual artist and were traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The turn to finance had implications beyond a shifting focus of investment, which tends to be compressed into the term ‘financialisation’. But among all the complexities of arbitrage, derivatives, hedge funds and the rest, there are two essential points about financialisation which need to be understood. One is that, financial speculation, like several of the factors discussed here, can increase the profits of individual capitalists at the expense of others, but cannot create new value for the system as a whole. The other is that, in so far as profits were raised, one aspect of financialisation became more important than any other and consequently needs to be considered as a factor in its own right.

This, the fifth and final factor, was a massive increase in consumer debt. Credit became crucially important in preventing the return to crisis only after the post-1982 recovery had exhausted itself. In so far as better-off working class people have spent borrowed money on commodities which are above the minimum needed to reproduce their labour, it is a response to their situation under neoliberalism. But the main reason for increased debt has been the need to maintain personal or familial income levels.

Men transporting baskets of coal onto railway carriages at Sauanda railway yard. Most of the workers have migrated to work in the area having been displaced from their traditional livelihoods in the countryside. Lacking title deeds for land on which they have farmed and hunted for millennia, the rural adivasi communities are being displaced to make way for new industrial developments planned to capitalise on the land's mineral wealth. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The points that Patnaik, Davidson and several others have been making, with increasing urgency in recent years, is that the freeing of finance capital from all social obligations like priority sector lending targets and differential interest rates, not only increases its profitability, even while pushing petty producers and small capitalists deeper into crisis, but also allows it to pursue its own profit-seeking ways over a global terrain, which has the effect of subjugating the State to the thralldom of internationalised finance capital.

In short, financial liberalisation is the process through which a fundamental change is enforced on the bourgeois State: from being an entity apparently standing above society and intervening for the ‘social good’, which means keeping in check to some extent the rapacity of big capital, even while promoting it and defending its monopoly privileges, the State becomes exclusively dominated by financial interests (with which big corporate interests are closely enmeshed) and loses its relative autonomy vis-a-vis such interests. We have not the ‘rolling back’ of the State as neo-liberal ideologues suggest, but State intervention in the exclusive interests of finance capital.

[‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008’, Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and a member of the Editorial Board of the journal International Socialism.]