Pambazuka: Hungry for a voice: The food crisis, the market, and socio-economic inequality

Hungry for a voice: The food crisis, the market, and socio-economic inequality
Jacques Depelchin (2008-12-04)

In an article exploring the history of socio-economic inequality, Jacques Depelchin calls for an interpretation of the current food crisis over the historical longue durée. As a direct consequence of an entrenched, centuries-old capitalist system, the author argues, the market as a ‘modernising’ force has consistently enriched the lives of a few while impoverishing a poor majority. Understanding the food crisis, Depelchin contends, rests first and foremost on re-considering humanity’s relationship to nature and championing historical narratives true to the voices and experiences of the global poorest of the poor.

In order to live, one needs to eat; and in order to live, one needs more than just food. In a world ruled by worshippers of the market, it has come to be accepted that principles of justice and solidarity shall take second place to everything else. Indeed, that is why one hears more and more often of the distinction between justice and social justice – as if calling for the former will not automatically cover those most affected by the growing disappearance of justice and equality.

Given the current mentality, dominated by greed, selfishness, and selfish charity, it is worth remembering a few cautionary principles: beware of the names given to a problem or a disease or a person without the consent of that person. Always remember the Arawaks and those who welcomed Christopher Columbus and his party on what Columbus called Hispaniola. The Arawaks soon died of hunger and disease after welcoming the Europeans. Always remember those who resisted the conquest of their land because they were defending much more than their land. To remember requires much more than mining memories and archives, it will take listening with loving attention to the voices which tend to be ignored, to poets, to those who did die of hunger, to those who would like to speak for themselves as they are, whoever they are (Pygmies, !kung, or Hazabe).

As Ernest Wamba dia Wamba has pointed out, at times like these it is crucial to hear the thinking of ordinary people (e.g., people living in forests or deserts), on how they have understood food security. For example, among the Kongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, earth is a package of food and medicine provided by God so people can face hunger and illness. During slavery (in the USA), slave masters sometimes wondered how Africans survived without access to what the masters considered food. It did not occur to the latter that the Africans managed to invent more nutritious food than their masters.

The food crisis is not just about food, it is about understanding humanity and its relation to nature. How the issue is framed or problematised shall determine the process of rethinking and finding a solution which is satisfactory, primarily to those who have suffered the most from the predatory nature of the current and triumphant economic and financial system. For Wamba dia Wamba, ‘it is the destruction of Mother Earth and the building of walls between people and Mother Earth which is at the centre of the food crisis. In the process Mother Earth is transformed, sterilized and turned into the mother of profits for the rich. For the victims it is unconscionable that food should be destroyed in order to increase prices, make people suffer while generating huge profits for the destroyers of Mother Earth.'[1]


The current food crisis in the midst of a multiple crisis should provide a wake-up call for all those who are trying to provide solutions by focusing only on food. At first glance, there are at least two competing narratives; one set by those who have run the world and their allies, and the other by those who are expected to submit and accept the word of the self-appointed masters of the world. Formally speaking, the former set their own agendas, among other places via the G8 and the yearly Davos meetings. Those who are expected to submit are reduced to using the United Nations and its specialised agencies, and the World Social Forum. Soon the Security Council and its permanent members will be changed, but it will not matter since the G8 and Davos meetings have ensured that the decisions which do matter to them will no longer be taken within the UN system.

In other words, it is not only in justice, health or, more prosaically, air travel, that the class system has imposed itself; there is justice and health for the poor and justice and health for the rich. Indeed, if one looks more carefully, it is not difficult to detect that the super rich would like to separate themselves from the rest. But, no matter how hard they would like to distinguish themselves from the rest of humanity, there is only one humanity. Splitting it apart – as the atom was split – willl yield worse results than the process which led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, more than 50 years later, how many are willing, like Dwight McDonald, to see the dropping of those atomic bombs as the modernisation of Auschwitz and Dachau? Given what happened in the Second World War, (and, more importantly, in the centuries leading up to it), shouldn’t one ask if the current crises are the by-product of the same competition-to-death mentality which gave rise in several countries with the most advanced economies to political leadership that saw nothing wrong with getting rid of, once and for all, any racially defined group (be it Africans, Asians, Armenians, pygmies, Jews, Tutsi, Hutu)? Asking the question does not mean that one knows the answer. When one can see that the mindset of those genocidal times is still vibrant, it would be irresponsible not to ask questions like, who are the slaves, who are the Jews, who are the colonised? Asking these questions will help uncover, along the way, how poverty and hunger are created, who named them and why they are so named?

The mindset which has trampled humanity under different names – slavery, colonisation, holocaust, apartheid – has not retreated; it has grown like a cancer, destroying the living principle. At the same time, it passes itself off under names which disguise its lethal, predatory nature, such as bio-technology, which presents itself as promoting life when it is engaged in the process of killing, brutally, softly, and all the ways in between. Bio-technology is a misnomer; given the antecedents, its proper name should be thanato-technology: to live on planet earth according to death principles. The chain toward self-destruction has no end: to rape, to enslave, to colonise, to seek the final solution, to bantustanise, to ethnically cleanse a country. Humanity has yet to see the end of its genocidal tendencies and sequences. Under the previous submission processes, the responsibility could be traced back to some sort of state authority, but with submission to the market’s rules, responsibility and authority seems to be nowhere and everywhere.

Peoples and nations have been enslaved and colonised by other nations, but at the core of the process, the rules of the market have reigned supreme. The capitalist market has superseded all previous conquering, enslaving, and colonising mechanisms. Indeed, unlike the empires of old, the market (as guided by capitalist principles) has modernised (automated) the mechanisms of domination in ways imperial powers could never have dreamed of achieving. Through market mechanisms, a few former slaves or a few former colonised could become part of the ruling cliques, and in so doing move away from the miseries of hunger and poverty. In times when denunciations of corruption have become a perpetual mantra, the sweet murmurs of the market and the promise of greater wealth to be made through its labyrinths, gag and/or muffle the few voices trying to change course. Before trying to restrict the food crisis to the last few decades and to the usual culprits, one should revisit the histories of those who (since the inauguration of capitalism a few centuries ago) died of hunger in times when the words food crisis were not even uttered.[2] At least not in the manner one hears them today.

Increasingly, food is only accessible through the market, as is work, education, health, justice, birth, the right to exist, the right to breath clean air, and the right to drink to clean water. Everything which goes into making life worth living, into making a human being worth being a human being, is only accessible through mechanisms controlled by a few individuals, but above all by a mindset which is accountable to nobody. The market fundamentalists might say that this is an exaggeration, that they are just as interested in the above objectives as anyone else. As fundamentalists who have benefited from the market, understandably, their primary objective has been, is, and will be to maintain the prism of the market as key determinant in assessing life’s value. If the food crisis is not problematised from within this situation, the histories of those who were famished because of who they were (i.e., dispensable), then the exercise is more than likely to only provide solutions beneficial to the so-called discoverers of hunger and famine. Historically, the discoverers have never seen themselves, at least initially, as the possible and probable source of problems of a socio-economic nature which are now affecting more than 90% of the world’s population.

By discussing the current food crisis from the perspective of the last few decades, these very short-term analysts, consciously or unconsciously, are saying that the problem is momentary and conjunctural. It is neither and has been in the making for a very long time.[3] Sometimes, like now, the time span can be even shorter because of the emphasis on the concomitant financial, energy, and ecological crises. This essay would like to address the current food crisis from a perspective which goes back at least to 1491. As Ch. Mann has pointed out, 1492 as the starting point of a post-1492 narrative tends to give the impression that prior to 1492 there was nothing worth remembering. The dominant mindset which emerged out of the so-called discoveries emphasises only the positive aspects, to the exclusion of any aspect which might blemish its record.[4]

The term consciousness of evil is one which has been used to describe what happened during and after the Second World War. Fifty years later, one has slowly but irresistibly, slid into a situation leading to the eradication of people who stand in the way of the total and complete triumph of the will of the richest people of the earth. When Native Americans were driven out of their land, when they lost the material basis of their way of living, they died of hunger and disease. Centuries later, on a bigger scale, masses of people are being starved, while a few are stuffing themselves, to death.[5] Some, because they are not eating the proper food, others because they just overeat, excited, driven by never ending advertising campaigns. This killing, anti-humanity mindset has reached such a level of intensity that those who are its victims fail to grasp that they do not have to submit to it. All it would take is affirming humanity and the living principles.


From way back, if one is willing to listen carefully to the historical echoes of those who screamed against inhumanity, one can hear something like the following:

When people were punished through starvation they protested, but who were they? Slaves. They responded: We are not slaves, we are Africans who were enslaved. For having spoken they were killed.

The generic human being protested. The screams were heard, but she was a colonial subject. She was jailed, raped, sent to exile only for having spoken when she was supposed to keep silent.

The human being protested babies, children, old men and women. Protested. Followed by animals, birds, nature. Life protested against death. To no avail. The market must prevail, keeps prevailing, is kept prevailing. The most powerful so dictated.

The habit of not listening to human beings less powerful. The habit of raping with impunity. Led to humanitarianism, a discovery aimed at covering up crimes against humanity. By those who had refused to listen to humanity. And lost their humanity.

From Columbus to today, the discoverers have not changed. They changed tunes to reinforce their mindset, leading one to ask: was their discovery of humanitarianism a diversion or a negation of their own humanity?

Or are they saying there is a humanity? To be understood, represented, or defended – by them or their agents – through humanitarianism, charitably. And there is a humanity, a humanity against which no crime must be committed.

They discovered themselves as the best representatives of humanity. But they are disconnected from humanity. They have never known starvation. The only thing they understand is how to make money out of their discoveries. Whatever their names: land, slaves, colonies, poverty, misery, hunger.

The history has been known for a long time, but it keeps being pushed back, even when, one should say especially when, it manages to free itself from the shackles of the dominant mindset. An enslaved person who frees herself without waiting for the master’s abolition or a colonised people which decolonises itself before it is considered appropriate by the coloniser shall be ‘taught a lesson’. From Saint-Domingue/Haiti to Indochina/Vietnam, to Cuba, to Kenya, to the DR Congo, to Mozambique, the lesson has been drilled with all the means at the disposal of the dominant mindset: from extreme violence to extreme seduction. The objective is the same: to ensure that fear and/or shame will keep the descendants of those who tried the impossible (and succeeded) to never ever try again to free themselves. More on shame further below.


If the current food crisis is going to be resolved for the benefit of those who have been most affected by its unfolding, and in a way that those who have most suffered from hunger participate in the thinking of how to remove hunger, then the food crisis must be examined far and away beyond the rattling of statistical tables which reveal nothing more than the obvious – that the poorest of the poor[6] have been getting poorer and poorer for the benefit of the richest of the rich. For as long as humanity has existed the former have risen against the latter, but one must resist the temptation of accepting the idea that emancipatory politics will always fail. Closer to us in historical time, one must also resist the temptation of accepting the notion that thoughts expressed by highly educated intellectuals count more than the thoughts of uneducated or poorly educated peasants. Being uneducated does not mean that one is incapable of thinking. The Africans who overthrew slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti thought better from within their situation than those who predicted that they could not possibly achieve such a feat. It is not difficult to imagine the slave owners (and the Enlightenment philosophers) saying to whoever would listen: what do the slaves know about freedom?

Yet, these were the very people who, having dared against all odds and all predictions of failure, left us with lessons on how to achieve freedom. But again, the lessons retold by the discoverers and their descendants and their allies shall always differ from the ones recounted, remembered by the so-called ‘discovered’ and their descendants and their allies. More often than not, one finds among the latter the most vociferous distorters of the histories and lessons emerging from battles against those who defend submission to the dominant mindset. For example, listening to the history of Haiti as recounted by C.L.R. James or, more recently, Peter Hallward is not the same as hearing it from Alex Dupuy.[7] The richest of the rich have multiple ways of enforcing their views, but so too do the poorest of the poor, provided they are convinced that they can.

For any human being, suffering can reach unbearable points. But at the same time, over and over in history, people have shown a heroic capacity to resist and rise above the most extreme forms of torture, especially when people are motivated by a political understanding of their situation disconnected from the idea that the way out can only be through the dominant mindset way of thinking.

Again if one looks at the history of Haiti, it is easy to understand why the slave and plantation owners would seek, by any means necessary, to prove that the Africans who overthrew slavery on Saint Domingue should never have tried: financial, economic, political, religious, cultural, and intellectual means were used to convey the message that the inhabitants of Saint Domingue would have been better off had they not risen against slavery. In a nutshell, everything has been done to ensure that other enslaved Africans (or any subsequent enslaving system) reconsider emancipatory politics as a viable option.

The history of Haiti is one of the most exemplary for both sides of the ideological fence separating emancipatory and consensual/submissive/abolitionist politics.


From the historical record, it is known that the turnover ratio of Africans in Saint Domingue was very high. Supply was cheap and less costly than seeking to improve maintenance. It was cheaper to get fresh bodies and use them to death. The demographic ratio was also favourable to the Africans, free and enslaved ones. From the beginning to the end of the 18th century, the number of Africans went from around 2,000 to about half a million. As in any such situation, a range of possibilities must have been discussed: improve the conditions of work/treatment, including better food; or get rid of the system altogether.

However, before going further in our examination, it is important to connect the history of Africans in Saint Domingue and Africans from one of their geographical points of origin: the Kongo Kingdom. Only 85 years (about three generations) separate two events related to the overthrow of slavery. On 2 July 1706, Kimpa Vita (some times known as Dona Beatriz) was burned at the stake for having tried to convince the Kongo King to put an end to the activities of the Portuguese slave raiders/traders. This was not just a one-person enterprise. Those who agreed with her denunciations rallied behind a movement known as the Antonian movement, so called because Kimpa Vita said that she had received her message from St Anthony. Little is known about the movement following the death of Kimpa Vita, but it is not unreasonable to surmise that memories of the movement survived and may have influenced those who, in 1791, in Saint Domingue, decided and vowed to end slavery. And, it would not be unfair to presume that, as a principle, humanity has genes which are allergic to any form of slavery. From within humanity there are always going to be those pushing for emancipatory politics.

The Africans who ended up in Saint Domingue lived in a most fearsome situation. In order to understand their determination to do away with slavery, one should try to understand what slavery was about.[8] The latter is almost impossible, regardless of the descriptions available either through historical, fictional, or cinematographic accounts.[9] The use of an entire continent as a hunting ground for enslaving people is the kind of trespassing of humanity which, because it has remained unacknowledged, opened the door to further trespassing, not just in terms of the number of people maimed, slaughtered, and raped but also because it further reinforced the mindset based on the notion that competition-to-death, by any means, is the most efficient way of organising any economy. One shall never stress enough that unless the enormity of what happened is eventually understood, it will be impossible to do anything with regard to the current challenges faced by humanity.[10]

Out of this mindset has grown a habit of minimising or erasing what the industrial enslavement of an entire continent has done. Such a process of slowly building a mindset aimed at minimising, muffling, or eradicating the efforts of those who, long before it was so proclaimed by the ‘discoverers’, stood up against a crime against humanity, ends up distorting any attempt to rise up against some of its most damaging consequences. This minimising of slavery and its consequences has been repeated at every subsequent transition (e.g., the end of the colonial period and the end of apartheid).

When the French government passed the legislation recognising slavery as a crime against humanity (Loi Christiane Taubira, 2001)[11], it was done in a way which was aimed at shielding those who collectively benefited from slavery. How else should one interpret the French government behaviour toward President Jean Bertrand Aristide (JBA) in 2004. The kidnapping was carried out by the American military in collaboration with the French and Canadian governments and their allies, including the Central African Republic.. The whole episode reminded one, more than 200 years later, of the kidnapping of Toussaint l’Ouverture.

It might be asked what is the meaning of this long detour into the history of Haiti for the purpose of confronting the current food crisis? It has to do with resisting the attempt to frame the food crisis from the perspective of those who want to benefit the most from it. In its most simplistic terms, the food crisis is being analysed and explained within the parameters put in place by a dominant mindset which has its deepest roots in how it organised the pauperisation of those who had defeated the biggest scourge of those times. Indeed it was more than a scourge, it was the embryo of what was to become known under globalisation two centuries later.

The Africans, then, understood their situation without political or charitable representatives. Their understanding and thinking of how to get out of their situation was arrived at through their own thinking and, certainly, without the help of the Enlightenment philosophers. 1789 had taken place and helped bring forward the idea, at least among some, that if the banner of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality was going to have any meaning, then it had to lead to the complete and total abolition of slavery. Massive efforts took place, not just from France, but also from England and Spain to try and reverse what the Africans had done. The abolition of slavery in French-controlled territories would not take place till 1848. A date which also coincides with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as stated above, these rights apply differently whether one belongs to humanity (first class) or to humanity-existing-through-humanitarianism (second and third classes).

Will the food crisis be resolved according to the discriminatory perspective above or according to an understanding that there is only one humanity? In other words, will the question of how to eradicate hunger and poverty be posed by those whose dominant mindset has generated massive hunger and poverty, or will the poor and the hungry frame the questions and provide the answers without the humanitarian or charitable advice of the ‘discoverers’ of poverty and hunger?

It is not difficult to see that the food crisis is connected to other crises – economic, financial (the so-called credit crunch), and climatic change. It is also clear that all institutions have been mobilised, from those with apparently appropriate knowledge on the issue (e.g., the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and government ministers) to personalities like the former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, who understand the seriousness and gravity of the crisis. But when all of these specialists meet and discuss, the voices of peasants, the voices of those who do produce food, either for themselves and families or for corporations, are rarely, if ever heard. Moreover, how can people whose mindsets are responsible for the food crisis be expected to provide satisfactory answers? How can people who see nothing wrong in their mindset be expected to get rid of, or distance themselves from, the very way of thinking which has brought the inhabitants of the planet face-to-face with permanent disaster?

The fear at work in the minds of the above group is not the same as the one to be found among those who belong to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the planet. A mind which does not have to worry about eating three meals a day, nor about providing food for all members of its family, can be at peace while those who go hungry on a daily basis often resort to suicide as the solution to their daily miseries (Raj Patel, 2007). An inconvenient question arises which is not unlike the one which arose with regard to the HIV/AIDS epidemic: could it be that the richest of the rich would rather let the hungry die than discuss with them the best way to resolve the crisis?


In addition to fear there is shame. While psychologists have studied how to detect people who are lying, there has been little interest on trying to understand why and how, individually and collectively, human beings are eager to hide anything which might be shameful. The fear of having a shameful act revealed to all provides a powerful incentive to hide.[12]

How a segment of humanity has treated others in the past can lead to a sense of shame and the desire to ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately, one is not operating under conditions which are levelled: those who know from their own historical records that they have perpetrated shameful acts are not eager to bring them to the surface. What was done to Africans and to Native Americans by other people in the name of a way of thinking – an ideology, a religion – has been felt unevenly all over the world. In some cases, such as France towards Africans and slavery, it has been has acknowledged that slavery is a crime against humanity, but little has been done to reverse associated direct and indirect consequences. Indeed, a belated apology has often been used as the most efficient way of preserving the gains acquired through the crime.[13]

Once a taboo has been trespassed, it becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to overcome its direct and indirect consequences. With regard to food, in a world in which people should not go hungry, people do go hungry precisely because it has become acceptable, in a mindset dominated by a dictatorial free market system, that some people are going to die of hunger. The accepted norm, under the present mindset, is that hunger cannot be eradicated, regardless of the efforts. The fact that humanity has been able to eradicate certain diseases, including hunger, is not seen as the proof that hunger could be banned.


In their self-congratulatory march to the top, the richest of the rich have always feared what the poorest of the poor would or could do if they were to understand their own situations without outside interferences. Along the way, the former segment of humanity has resorted, directly or indirectly, to fearsome practices in order to submit and/or obliterate those they considered less than human.[14] The process of how Haiti has been impoverished following 1804 is pertinent to how to think about the current food crisis.

Haiti, for example, used to be self sufficient in rice, while the DR Congo used to export cassava and many other food commodities. Both countries now have to import thanks to a process which involved the World Bank economists and the US government’s common strategy of liberalisation. The process of turning self-sufficient economies into dependent ones has been documented ad infinitum.[15] Aid and charity complement each other as the remedy to the predatory extremes unleashed by the dictatorial rule of competition.[16]

Succeeding where success was not expected, as the Africans did in eradicating slavery, could have inflicted a serious blow to the system.[17] Those who had most benefited from slavery had to impose their own timing: it took another half-century for France to abolish slavery. Timing was crucial in order to tame those who had thought, back then, that slavery was indeed a crime against humanity. Again, as with abolition, the timing for the recognition had to be imposed by those who had most benefited from the crime itself. It was only in 2001 that France finally passed a law recognising slavery as a crime against humanity.[18]

While working in Mozambique between 1979 and 1986, I once had a poster against apartheid: ‘Apartheid is a Crime against Humanity’. Looking at it a visitor asked what it meant. I remained speechless, thinking it was self-explanatory. How long will it take for the South African government to acknowledge apartheid as a crime against humanity? Or, is it that, in the name of Truth and Reconciliation, the multiple roots of the crime shall be silenced?

From 1962 to 1974, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) succeeded, against all odds, in putting an end to Portuguese colonial rule. Such a success, as in Haiti, had to be reversed. The context, in Mozambique, was dominated by the Cold War. Frelimo had been supported by the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Vietnam, the German Democratic Republic, but also by people from Western countries like Italy, Holland and Sweden. As Henry Kissinger stated during a visit to southern Africa in April 1976, communism had to be defeated in the region.[19] Not long after that one of the most vicious civil wars aimed at what looked like a process of ‘teaching Frelimo a lesson’ began to unfold.

The consequences of the war have been so devastating that, in the name of the peace achieved in 1992, it has become preferable not to speak about the war. So much so that the silence around the civil war is now being extended to the war against the colonisers, as if that was the war which should never have taken place. Again, it is difficult not to think of Haiti and what the Africans did to slavery. Today’s elite in Haiti acts as if it wishes slavery had not been abolished, at least not in the manner it was done between 1791 to 1804. Today’s elite in Mozambique prefers to focus on how to become as rich as possible and as quickly as possible, and, it is possible that some of them might even be inaudibly saying to themselves that had it not been for Frelimo, they would be much better off today.[20]

Both Haiti and Mozambique are most talked about as very poor countries. Thanks to outside donors, anti-poverty programs do help the poorest of the poor overcome hunger and other problems. It is understandable that those who suffered the consequences of war (especially the civil war (1980–1992)) would rather not face that situation again. A question arises though: should the fear of what happened during colonial rule, or after, lead to the fear of politics – that is, thinking for oneself on how best to get out of a given situation? Moreover, should the fact that the Soviet Union and all its allies ‘lost’ the Cold War lead Mozambicans to the conclusion that anything which resembles, directly or indirectly, socialism and/or communism must be banished forever?

The process of enforcing only one way of thinking with regard to colonial rule and its demise has followed the same pattern as the one which has been observed in Haiti: everything must be done so that a different way of organising society, production, and distribution does not emerge. Differences will be acceptable if they are not antagonistic towards the dominant way of thinking.


When Aimé Césaire passed away recently it dawned on many people, including myself, that someone very special had lived among us who had not been heard or understood as he should have been.[21] This has happened before and will happen again. Later on, some shall describe him as a prophetic voice. He always insisted, without saying it in this manner, that he was not a politician and that his politics were in his poetry.[22] To a specific question by Françoise Vergès on the relationship between his poetry and politics he points out the following: ‘La poésie révèle l’homme à lui-même. Ce qui est au plus profond de moi-même se trouve certainement dans ma poésie. Parce que ce ‘moi-même’, je ne le connais pas. C’est le poème qui me le révèle et même l’image poétique.’ (Aimé Césaire. Entretiens, 2005:47) (‘It is poetry which reveals the human being to itself. What comes from deepest within myself can be found in my poetry. Because even this self of mine, I do not know. It is the poem which reveals it to me, even the poetic imagery. [My translation])

Using statistical data to demonstrate the insanity and the injustices behind the current food crisis will not make a dent in the consciousness of those who are responsible for it. For someone like Césaire – and Françoise Vergès is right to emphasise this point (Césaire. Entretiens, 2005:111-136) – the immensity of the wound inflicted by one segment of humanity onto another, through slavery and later compounded by colonisation, has never been assessed. Such an assessment is deliberately avoided because of the fear and shame of what would happen to all those who only know one truth, one history: the history, the truth of humanity seen through the eyes and the mindset of those who have enslaved, who have colonised. The resulting shock of discovering what had been hidden could be overwhelming to those who are unprepared.

From within this kind of historical narrative, the dominant mindset is bound to present access to food, health, education, and justice as something which is easily available to anyone provided it is so desired. To paraphrase Françoise Vergès, the dominant mindset (in France) is convinced that the 1848 abolition of slavery was France’s gift to the Africans. This paternalistic mindset is as deeply embedded today as it was in 1848. Enslavement to the dominant system is being carried out with different means, but the results are just as devastating on humanity as a whole. The direct and indirect consequences of slavery and colonisation have never been dealt with. As a result, one hears calls to the poor to change their attitude. It is very easy to promote the idea that the poor are poor because they want to be poor. Just as it is easy to accuse peasants of laziness. No one among the richest of the rich ever accuses the land stealer, the bankers, the speculators of being lazy, even though, most of the time, their robbing is conducted from comfortable offices.[23]

From Aimé Césaire’s poetry one has heard, but not yet learned, that living is an art. The food speculators, the financiers, the colonisers, the enslavers, and all those who have never seen anything wrong in their mindset, or in living as an accounting exercise, may praise our beloved Césaire and even quote from his poetry, but they will do so from within the accounting mindset, willing to accept him paternalistically, just as they accepted the abolition of slavery in 1848. As stated in the preamble, the food crisis is one of the multiple manifestations of humanity approaching a dead end.

More and more of humanity’s members are beginning to sense that when living principles determined by human beings are being superseded by principles anonymously determined by a deity called the Market, then something, somewhere, has gone wrong. When food, such as corn or maize, is being produced for reasons other than feeding people, then, surely, it is a sign that the segment of humanity which promotes such a diversion has modernised, exponentially, as with what happened during the Second World War. For the sake of defending or promoting a mindset, masses of people are being reduced to a status of non-existence.


The market, unfettered of any rules based on equality and fraternity between all segments of humanity, can only lead to annihilation of humanity. This is not a prediction. It is happening as surely as the melting of the ice caps at both poles, as surely as global warming is progressing. How does one reverse a mindset which has taken hold not just of the speculators, bankers, political, and religious leaders, but of ordinary people around the world? How does one defeat the deeply rooted tendency of thinking that the task at hand is impossible?

For one, the voices which have been saying the same things for centuries must be heard, and acted upon. It is not enough to say that humanity is one if, at the same time, one refuses to listen to some of the voices, regardless of the reasons. When the crisis is as serious as the current one, regardless of the angle from which it is tackled, is it not wise to acknowledge that every single member of humanity has a say. Should one not call and encourage the tiniest voices to rise? Isn’t the wisest course to accept, in the face of inconvenient truths, the inconvenient truths uttered for the past centuries by the poorest of the poor?

When confronted with the systematic denial of one’s humanity, there is only one possible course: to stand up against such a denial. It is crucial that resistance against the dominant mindset be conducted from within the principles aimed at a different mindset. It must be firmly grounded on solidarity. The only force to be used shall be the force of art, poetry, and science at the service of humanity.

Artists, poets, and scientists must eat too. Freedom by itself does not feed, but freedom with equality and fraternity can. Artists, poets, and scientists do not have to congregate in places designated by the market promoters. In such places, all voices shall be heard, provided respect for basic principles to be agreed upon by those who insist on the necessity to change the mindset. Among the principles, the following ones could be considered:

• Food producers and the poorest of the poor must be heard in their own voices
• The multiplicity of the voices calling for emancipatory politics must be accepted
• No representation shall be accepted
• Each voice must heard from where it is, as it is.

These are, by no means, the only principles one could highlight.


The transition from apartheid, even with the help of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), has not lived up to its heralded promises. The recent (May 2008) pogroms against the poorest of the poor by other poorest of the poor has revealed the shortcomings of the TRC as a panacea, on the one hand, and on the other, has brought out very sharply the shortcomings of the African National Congress (ANC) as the governing party as well as the government with regard to educating and informing the population about the international support without which apartheid would not have been defeated. In that process of informing and educating, the role of ordinary Africans who risked their lives and generously gave all they could, should have been highlighted. This failure, however, must be shared by most African governments because of their common tendency to disregard the role of ordinary people in the making of their histories. The failure to inform and educate must also be shared by those who, during apartheid, remained silent and profited. As has been remarked, sometimes listening to what happened during apartheid in South Africa, it sounds as if everyone was a resistant to it.

As with all previous major transitions (from slavery to post-slavery, from colonialism to post-colonialism), the defeated side quickly reorganises itself with the objective of minimising losses. In that process they are helped by their previous enemies (now referred to as adversaries). As in Nkrumah’s famous motto, the defeated side is convinced that once the political kingdom has been seized, the rest will follow. Yet, in social and economic terms, they find themselves suddenly far from the very individuals and groups who have made it possible to seize the kingdom, and, much closer to their previous enemies whose main thinking was focused on how to keep the economy going as well as before. And, one might add, as fast as possible, if possible, faster than before.

In South Africa, the fear of the new government was to show that things in the country would from then on be different from what had happened in the rest of the continent. That fear led the ANC leadership to move away from the Freedom Charter, but even from creative principles to provide the poorest of the poor with genuine rewards and, more importantly, a say in transforming politics.

To have a say in transforming politics meant, among other things, as pointed out by the members of AbahlalibaseMjondolo, to speak for themselves and not be represented by politicians. The poorest of the poor who live in shacks in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town see themselves as the ones who are really defending the principles contained in the Freedom Charter. Democracy means that everyone thinks, that everyone deserves respect and dignity. Freedom must mean that when decent housing, and decent living conditions are not provided for the poor, they are the best qualified to make sure that their voices are heard, clearly without translators or intermediaries, be they lawyers, municipality leaders, university lecturers, politicians.[24]

The similarities between what the poorest of the poor and peasants are suffering across the world call for a reinforcement of already existing links, and for greater sharing of the stories and histories of resistance against what Amit Bhaduri has referred to as the TINA syndrome (There Is No Alternative to globalization)[25]. This syndrome is not new. The imposition of colonial rule was presented as an altruistic exercise bringing civilisation to Africa. Forced labour was presented as an educational exercise.

Emancipatory politics must go hand in hand with emancipatory historical narratives and move away from narratives framed by the so-called success stories of globalisation told from the perspective of multinational mega corporations and financial institutions at their service.

Author’s p.s. 6 October 2008 – This essay was drafted sometime in June–July 2008. The question of naming remains as crucial as ever. The so-called financial crisis is not just about finances, banking, and credit. And it is not just about the deregulation of the banking industry. More and more it looks like a deregulation of all the principles which, one would have thought, have made humanity what it is. The reluctance to face history and humanity, as such, in all of its dimensions and complexities, is more entrenched than ever. Only Mr Market counts, but even it, or so it seems, has grown tired and would like to rest.

* Jacques Depelchin is a CAPES fellow at the Universidade Federal da Bahia.
* Please send comments to or comment online at


[1] Personal communication from Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, 27 October 2008.
[2] At one time, during its triumphant emergence, the Roman empire tried to resolve its food crisis by conquering Egypt.
[3] Fernand Braudel, and many others since, have rightly insisted on approaching history from a long-term perspective. Unfortunately, such an approach has tended to favour the questions emerging out of the dominant narrative. In the issue of Pambazuka News 383 focused on the food crisis, the length of time was even shorter, being limited to the 1970s. If one is going to make sense of the food crisis today, but also try to understand other food crises in the past (e.g., the potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century), the framing of how the crisis has unfolded should be as deep and wide as possible.
[4] For example, Howard Zinn in his People History of the United States can only go as far as providing an inventory of the slaughter of the Native Americans and the Africans. For him 1776 is still the event. And as the subtitle indicates, the starting point of his narrative is 1492.
[5] See Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved, The Hidden Battle for the World Food System
[6] The history of how the poorest of the poor reached this stage has been observed across the planet and for centuries and generations: from food producers, they were forced off their land and reduced to search for work in an environment in which there was only work for a few.
[7] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins; Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, Verso. 2007; see also Peter Hallward’s review of Alex Dupuy’s The Prophet and Power: Jean Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti, Rowan and Littlefield, 2007.
[8] The importance of this cannot be overstressed in view of the tendency within the dominant mindset to downplay the horrors of slavery. See J. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
[9] In His Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James did try. Fiction writers have tried, from Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons to Toni Morison’s Beloved. Haile Gerima in his movie, Sankofa, offered a harrowing view of what it was like. Still, when all is said and done, I would argue that no one, to this day and with my greatest respect for the above writers, has come any way near to measuring what slavery meant both individually and collectively. I have to assume that such measurement, not just in physical terms, shall one day be possible. This hope rests, in part, on the realisation that someone somewhere did achieve that impossible act, but that it has not been recorded in the form and/or in the place where it would get noticed. There are exceptions, most notably Aimé Césaire (2005)
[10] A point cogently made by Françoise Vergès in Césaire (2005).
[11] Its application officially began on 10 May 2004.
[12] In recent times, it has been possible to see how difficult it is to accept that people in very powerful positions can lie. In earlier times, Hitler and his acolytes found out that a lie repeated a thousand times became a truth.
[13] France, among the nations most involved in transatlantic slavery, has probably taken the boldest step by declaring, through the Loi Taubira, that slavery a crime against humanity. However, this bold step has triggered a sort of blowback against it, particular by historians. See Pierre Nora’s ‘Liberté pour l’histoire’ in Le Monde (10.10.08) and Christiane Taubira’s response a few days later: ‘Mémoire, histoire et droit’ in Le Monde (15.10.08).
[14] A few months ago (in May 2008), in South Africa, the poorest of the poor (so-called indigenous South Africans) went on a rampage against poorest of the poor foreigners. This has been the most recent and exemplary illustration of how entrenched the competitive mindset is. It also reveals the structural shortcomings of the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid founded on the erroneous notion that colouring the richest of the rich in black would radically transform the economic/financial tenets of apartheid days.
[15] One of the most interesting accounts has been given by John Perkins in his Confessions of An Economic Hit Man. See also Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved.
[16] That it does not have to be so has long ago been proved. See, for example, Marcel Mauss’s essay Essai sur le don (1924). And also the website of Revue du M.A.U.S.S.
[17] What was feared was the effect it could have on other Africans wanting to get rid of slavery in other parts.
[18] In 2006, 40 members of the French National Assembly called for the abrogation of the Loi Taubira. See
[19] Glijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976.
[20] Such inaudible murmuring may even come from the mouths of bona fide veterans of the armed struggle. See Duarte Tembe’s book on Samora (Maputo, 2000). And also the interview given to the weekly Savana (Ericinio Salema and Paola Rolletta) on 6 July 2008. It can be viewed at:
[21] Obviously there are exceptions to this deficiency. There is a difference between knowing someone was special and having understood the true worth of the person. See for example Daniel Maximin’s Préface to Césaire’s Ferrements et autres poèmes (Editions Points, 2008).
[22] Aimé Césaire, ‘Calendrier laminaire’, in Moi, Laminaire. In Anthologie Poétique, Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1996, pp. 233-234; and Aimé Césaire, Nègre je suis, nègre je resterai. Entretiens avec Françoise Vergès. Paris, Albin Michel, 2005, pp. 47–50.
[23] There are exceptions. Karl Marx being the most prominent one with his reference to ‘coupon clipping capitalists’.
[24] In his most recent intervention, S’bu Zikode has made these politics very clear. See S’bu Zikode’s speech at the Diakonia Economic Justice Forum, 28 August 2008: