The Guardian reports that 1 million American children regularly go to bed hungry, and that in 2008 1 American in 6 – that is 50 million people – has at some point been unable to afford food sufficient to keep themselves healthy. 6.7 million regularly do not have enough to eat. And this information does not come from a poverty or children’s charity, but from the US Government itself. The figure of 50 million is a rise of a third on the year before. Not only that, but the Secretary for Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said he expected this year’s figure to be worse again. 17 million children live in households that experienced food shortage at some time. Unsurprisingly, those worst affected are from minorities. There are millions more on foodstamps, or who rely on foodbanks. Significantly, Feeding America, which runs 200 food banks helping to feed 25 million people, says that 40% of those it helps are families with at least one working adult.
Such figures, we are expected to say, are shocking. Which they are. At another level, however, they are the predictable outcome of the capitalist system. We are used to see people suffering hunger, and starvation as well, in Africa and Asia, but we do not expect to see it in the most powerful country the earth has ever seen, with unprecedented riches and massive productive capacity. But herein lies the point. America has a very vicious and brutal form of capitalism. Although it can be highly regulated – one need only look at salary caps and player drafts in sports to see an area where US capitalism is more regulated than European – US capitalism as we all know is much more unchecked than we in western Europe are used to, with brutal consequences for those at the sharp end of economic exploitation. That it is not just the unemployed but large numbers of working people that can’t feed their families drives home how unforgiving capitalism is.
Vilsack talks about the need “for us to get very serious about food security and hunger, about nutrition and food safety in this country.” I’m sure that is music to the ears of US agri-business, which has long benefited from the patronage of its government, both through subsidies and protection against foreign competition. They have also been benefiting recently from an alliance with the energy industry. Fidel Castro has been pointing out for some time the danger to the world’s food supply and humanity’s poorest and most vulnerable represented by the promotion of biofuels. Food security means much more than simply ensuring food on the table. The US must take into account the environmental and human impact of their policies on the planet as a whole.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predicted that modern capitalism would result in the immiseration of the working class, provoking the proletariat to overthrow the system and institute socialism. While they in fact meant immiseration in relative rather than absolute terms, it is undeniable that the ability of capitalism to raise the absolute living standards of workers to an acceptable level of comfort has been responsible for the survival of liberal capitalist political systems. That success has blinded a lot of people on the left to the real nature of capitalism. Statistics such as these, and the figures from Britain showing that inequality has worsened under Labour, should help remove their blinkers. They should also demonstrate to those on the left inclined to single-issue campaigning the absolute centrality of politics. The main difference between the US and western Europe lies in its political culture. The US singularly lacks any significant form of working-class political organisation. Hungry children and families, ordinary people unable to access decent healthcare, parents working two and sometimes three jobs in a desperate effort to make ends meet, drug culture, criminality, apathy, and capitalism running amok are the results. If we are not to follow the US example, then we must remember the centrality of the organised working class, in trade unions and political parties.
As for the President, who has been making welcome and strenuous efforts to extend healthcare, what was his response? The situation is “unsettling”. Change you can truly believe in.