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Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Google's Blogger app tells me that I have posted 1132 separate posts over the three years and a bit more that I have been blogging, a number I find astonishing and a bit appalling.  No one has that much to say about the world!  But as I reflect on this spate of words, it occurs to me that there are a number of subjects about which I have had nothing at all to say, despite the fact that they are, by any rational measure, considerably more important than what I have been writing about.  One reason for this silence, of course, is that these are subjects about which I cannot pretend to any special knowledge or insight at all.  Nevertheless, I think it behooves me to say something about them, if only to acknowledge their importance.  From the rather long list of these important subjects not discussed on this blog I have chosen two for today's post, one domestic, the other international.  The domestic subject is America's prisons -- the incarceration of millions of men and women.  The international subject is the hunger, starvation, and death of millions of people worldwide.

I.  Starvation

Probably all the major schools of moral theory [save Libertarianism, if you can call that a school of moral theory] would agree that the death by starvation of millions is the more important of the two, so let me begin with that.  Wikipedia states that six million children die of starvation every year. That is the equivalent of an annual Holocaust.  This is of course vastly more than the total number of persons who die each year in wars and other violent conflicts.  Wikipedia also estimates that close to a billion people -- one seventh of the world's population -- are malnourished and more or less permanently underfed.  It is simply impossible to grasp conceptually the magnitude and enormity of this suffering. 

The great economist Amartya Sen [one of the few Laureate economists actually to deserve the Nobel Prize] has written extensively about famine, focusing in the first instance on his native India.  He argues quite convincingly that in the modern world famines are never a consequence of an actual shortage of food.  They are the result of politically caused failures of distribution of available food resources.  It would seem to be quite natural to suppose that in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the widespread starvation and malnourishment is a consequence of the inability of the afflicted populations to support themselves -- an inability variously attributable to their cultural deficiencies, their lack of formal education, or their lack of the capital resources needed to integrate themselves into the world economy, but a little reflection and some historical information shows that these explanations are quite false.

Leaving to one side Hegel's ignorant and stupid statement that Africa exists eternally and unchanged outside of world history, sub-Saharan Africa before the arrival of European imperial and capitalist exploiters had a wide range of peoples existing quite successfully as agriculturalists, nomadic herders, artisans, kings, empire builders, priests, and servile or enslaved workers.  Plagues, droughts, and other natural afflictions were quite capable of inflicting misery from time to time, but nothing resembling endemic, persistent starvation existed anywhere in the sub-continent.  The entire region was for a very long time integrated into a network of trade and commerce that stretched from the northern reaches of England south and east to China.  [For a detailed discussion of this subject, see Janet Abu-Lughod's fine book, Before European Hegemony, one of the most fascinating works I have ever encountered.]  Fine wool from Lancaster founds its way into the regal robes worn by African rulers, and for a while in the late European Middle Ages, half of the gold circulating in Western Europe came from the mines of Africa.

Needless to say, Africa was not an edenic paradise.  There were wars, imperial struggles, and involuntary servitude [although not the hereditary chattel slavery that was America's distinctive contribution to the modern world], but it was a functioning region quite capable over many millennia of feeding its people.

It was the imperial colonizers, the slave traders, and capitalist investors who destroyed the region's economy and reduced large proportions of its people to misery and perpetual poverty.  The simple truth is that capitalism does not need all of the world's peoples for its profitability, and the natural working out of capitalist economic social relationships of production marginalizes and impoverishes those from whom a profit cannot be wrested.  First capitalism expropriates them, then it discards them.  The result is starvation and death on an apocalyptic scale.  [Those who are interested might usefully consult both Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the writings of Samir Amin.]

The solutions widely proposed to the malnourishment and outright starvation of so large a proportion of the world population range from charity to the forced incorporation of those peoples into the world capitalist economy.  Simply to return Africa to its former condition would require heroic efforts, at least some of which would have to be devoted to displacing the current rulers, who have worked hand in glove with their former imperial masters to perpetuate the economic deformations that produced the starvation.  As I have already indicated, I have absolutely no special knowledge or experience to bring to bear on this question.

II.  Incarceration

The figures are startling.  At the end 2010, 2,266,800 Americans in prison and another 4,933,667 on parole or probation, with an additional 86,927 juveniles in detention.  That is 737/100,000 Americans in prison.  Compare that figure with England and Wales in 2006 -- 139/100,000, or China in 2001 -- 111/100,000.  The figures do not match up by year, of course, but they convey dramatically how many times as many Americans are incarcerated as citizens of other countries.  South Africa  used to lead the world, I believe, in percentage of its population incarcerated, but America is now the undisputed world leader when it comes to putting people behind bars.  The overall picture conveyed by these statistics is correct, I believe, but the precise numbers are open to dispute, inasmuch as different web sites give different magnitudes.

The high rates of incarceration have a variety of consequences, aside from the suffering inflicted on those incarcerated. Rapes of prisoners exceed 200,000 persons [not instances]a year, with the result that rape of men is probably more common in the United States now than rape of women. Millions of men and women are permanently removed from eligibility to vote or to hold all manner of jobs. And, not at all accidentally, the incidence of the incarceration of African-Americans is way above that for Whites.
The rampant incarceration of Americans is a relatively new phenomenon.  Apparently, as recently as forty years ago, America's incarceration rates, while high, were on the same order of magnitude as those of other nations.  The change has come about in very large measure as a consequence of the "war on drugs," especially the criminalization of the possession and sale of marijuana.  If drug possession were decriminalized, marijuana legalized, and drug dependency treated as a public health issue, as are alcoholism and smoking, the population of America's prisons could be halved.

What is going on?  I think the answer is obvious, although I do not have the evidence to prove it.  High rates of incarceration of African-Americans started just when the civil Rights Movement achieved dramatic improvements in the status and liberties of Black people.  Jail is the new Jim Crow. just as Jim Crow in its day was the new slavery.  White people in America are determined to permanently oppress and delegitimize Black people, Obama and Oprah and Kobe Bryant to the contrary notwithstanding.

III.  Conclusion

As I said when I began this post, these are topics about which I have no specialized knowledge, and I have not blogged about them for that reason.  But they are of the very first importance nevertheless, and I felt that some acknowledgement of them was called for.  Needless to say, there are other topics that fall into this category, among which, of course, is Global Warming.

Sufficient unto the day.


Superfluous Man said...

Closely related to the first, but still a separate problem all itself is the subject of overpopulation. My now departed friend Joe Bageant once wrote an essay on this subject which I occasionally go back and read to remind myself of how lucky I am and that almost all Americans are as well.

Just in passing I would also add that incarceration, at least from the standpoint of the politician, "solves" some of the employment problem here in the US. Without it we would find ourselves with much larger numbers to add to the unemployment column, both those incarcerated as well as those those working in the prison industry are not added to the total because of the existence of costly prisons.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Absolutely right about the unemployment numbers. Way back, I did a post comparing the European unemployment numbers to the [then] much better American numbers, and then factored in both the much larger prison population and the much larger military forces, to show that taking those two things into account, the levels of real unemployment were much more comparable.

JP said...

"First capitalism expropriates them, then it discards them. The result is starvation and death on an apocalyptic scale."

If I remember correctly, the Mid 80's Ethiopian famine happened under the Marxist-Leninist regime of Mengistu. Is capitalism to be blamed for this, or was it an exception?

anonymous said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

I would be keen to hear your thoughts on libertarianism.


formerly a wage slave said...

I believe that the Sociologist Loic Wacquant has a view similar to yours about the current excessive imprisonment of African-American men. --Roughly: Since USA society could no longer keep them down in old ways it was necessary to find new ones. However, it is more complicated than I can say now (not because I know his ideas well and am being brief, but on the contrary, because I read a couple of books by him a while ago and have forgotten the details.) Wacquant's prose strikes me as being filled with fiery indignation of just the right sort, but it also sometimes overwhelms me---probably because I am sociologically ignorant. But I thought I might offer up this quote where he mentions JIm Crow: "What makes the racial intercession of the carceral system different today is that, unlike slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto of mid-century, it does not carry out a positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of an active workforce. The prison serves mainly to warehouse the precarious and deproletarianized fractions of the black working class in the dualizing city, be it that they cannot find employment owing to a combination of skills deficit, employer discrimination, and competition from immigrants, or that they refuse to submit to the indignity of substandard work in the peripheral sectors of the service economy--what ghetto residents, by a bitter historical twist, commonly label 'slave jobs'."--p. 208, in the last paragraph of Chapter Six, "The Prison as Surrogate Ghetto: Encaging Black Subproletarians", "Punishing the Poor; The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity", Duke Univ. Press 2009

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That sounds just about right, but the prose is impenetrable. "racial intercession of the carceral system" is godawful English. Still, I would rather the right analysis in terrible prose than the werong analysis in limpid prose!

formerly a wage slave said...

Mainly I thought that since Wacquant is a sociologist, you'd like to know that a specialist comes to the same general conclusion as you do. (And, yes, the prose style is not exactly a style that I would recommend that students or anyone else imitate! I wonder if he's done his own more-or-less literal translation from the original French.)
If you don't know, it might be interesting to know that Wacquant has actually written some comparisons between US ghettos and the French banlieues--since you spend so much time in France.... I somehow first became aware of him because he had made available on the web a public lecture on the car burnings a few years ago. It was quite entertaining. He had some charts showing that car burnings had basically ceased until Sarcozy opened his mouth.... And, if my memory is correct, his spoken English was very idiomatic and comprehensible.....(Here imagine that I add a thousand caveats about my ignorance of France and the French language...)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is very interesting. Where can I find what he has written on the banlieus of Paris? I am looking forward, when I go to Paris next month, to trying to get some sense of whether Hollande is going to make any difference. My French cousins, Andre and Jacqueline Zarembowich, are leftists, and when i have dinner with them I will ask them wehat they think.

LFC said...

I fully agree with you about the moral importance of the problem of world hunger, but the Wikipedia figure of 6 million children dying every year of starvation is wrong. Save the Children's recent figures are much more likely to be accurate, and that organization says that roughly 2 million children die every year of diseases that they become vulnerable to as a result of chronic malnutrition, with another 600,000 dying from acute malnutrition, i.e., what we usually call starvation or famine. Thus the total of child deaths attributable to malnutrition in all forms is roughly 2.6 million. The total from outright starvation, i.e. acute malnutrition, is 600,000, one-tenth the Wikipedia figure.

LFC said...

I should add that these figures, still obscenely and unacceptably high, have been declining steadily in recent years. Much more progress on this front is still needed, of course.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks for the correction. As you say, the fugures are appalling nonetheless, but obviously every advance means saving large numbers of people from pain and death.