Published on Sat 20 Jan Prophesying the future is even more hazardous. In , shortly before the death of Queen Victoria, the radical writer William Digby looked back to the Madras famine and confidently asserted: "When the part played by the British Empire in the 19th century is regarded by the historian 50 years hence, the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monument. In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis charts the unprecedented human suffering caused by a series of extreme climactic conditions in the final quarter of the 19th century. The death tolls were staggering: around 12m Chinese and over 6m Indians in alone. The chief culprit, according to Davis, was not the weather, but European empires, with Japan and the US.
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Not only did we gain an extraordinarily wide hearing for our political ideas, but we also spooked our ideological opponents, and as a result got a good look at their rhetorical arsenal. Many of their arguments are familiar. Capitalism has an enormous death toll of its own. MD Tell me about the Indian famines of the s. MD The incorporation of the great subsistence peasantries of South and East Asia was absolutely cataclysmic.
The story differed from place to place, but the final death toll was enormous. India is the most dramatic example, in part because it occurred on the watch of British liberalism. By the s, the British had sponsored a great deal of development in India of canals and railroads designed to move export products from interior agricultural regions to the coast.
The British claimed that because of the railroads, it would be impossible to have famines in India anymore. What in fact happened in , when you had two monsoon failures in a row and famines in Western and Southern India, was that the railroads were used to take grain out of the famine regions.
Because the domestic grain market had been largely privatized, grain merchants pulled grain out of the famine regions and stocked it in railroad centers to wait for the prices to rise and make a killing off of it. On the village and town level, centuries of fighting drought had led to local water storage systems, small reservoirs and the like, which were managed through the paternalistic relations of the village, with the local nobility of different kinds responsible for the upkeep.
So under the Mughal Dynasty , though famines occurred, there was nothing on the gigantic scale of the nineteenth century. When the British came, they ignored local water storage entirely. They of course displaced much of the local nobility, and merchants and moneylenders often became the power on the village level, buying grain and export crops cheap to sell dear. When the famines came, they were more apt to try to profiteer in grain than relieve the starving peasantry.
The market should work to ultimately relieve the famine. It was the same policy they had applied in Ireland in the s, which had led directly to the starvation and death of about a fifth of the Irish population. At a time when Ireland was exporting things like cattle and horses, people in the west of Ireland were reduced to cannibalism. It was only reluctantly, and because of radical critics inside the British administration in India, that relief was provided, where you worked in order to be fed.
But they chose the most grueling system of all, which was to require people to walk to the relief sites, which were generally railroad construction or canal digging projects requiring heavy labor. People were compelled to walk twenty-five, thirty, sometimes forty miles from their homes, and people died like flies at the construction sites and along the way.
They were already badly malnourished, and the expectation that they could walk this great distance and then undertake heavy labor simply doomed people. It was very similar to systems of coerced or forced labor in African colonies, or what the Germans practiced during World War II, where they literally worked people to death, Jewish people and many others. Britain ran a trade deficit in other parts of the world, but made up for it in Indian exports.
India also paid for the Indian Army, which allowed the British to send large bodies of troops into Asia, Africa, and eventually, during World War I, to Europe itself, without having to maintain a large army. The British professional army was very small. It was India that provided the crucial edge. So this was a form of taxation, revenue taken out of the villages, and there was no compensation in the form of investment in local water storage, farm tools, or in education.
Contrast this to Thailand, which actually invested fairly impressively in elementary education in the same period — one of the things that allowed it to escape colonialism. So the combination of all these things — private grain market, a reluctant and eventually destructive system of outdoor relief, and the fact that the villages no longer possessed the same infrastructure or resources — led to a famine that grew out of a drought, which ended up killing somewhere between eight and twelve million people.
And then the same thing was repeated in the late s, on a scale that was as large or larger than the first. He gave very detailed accounts of how British policy, its reliance on markets and its reluctance to relieve people by simply rushing food to the sites where people were starving, again doomed millions of people. Regionally they were equivalent in terms of population loss and destruction of productive resources to the era of the Black Death in Medieval Europe, or even to the Mongol invasions.
But they occurred on the watch and through the deliberate policies of the most powerful industrial nation in modernity. Modernization, which Indians paid for with their own taxes, did little or nothing for ordinary Indians. In fact it had the perverse effect of abetting a speculative market in grain, converting an environmental event into a famine that caused mass death. This famine also killed millions, in the same amount of time and in a smaller geographical area.
Late Victorian Holocausts includes some chilling descriptions of this famine. Emaciated people would lay down and be eaten alive by dogs. Human meat was sold openly in the streets. Parents would exchange children with another hungry couple, because neither could bear to kill and eat their own.
What happened to cause this famine? MD China was absolutely exceptional in the eighteenth century. China, like India, always had one area in grain surplus while another was in grain deficit. Southern China is often the victim of floods, but most of the environmental problems in China are concentrated in the North, in the basin of the Yellow River.
And it meant that in times of hardship in the North, rice could be shipped from the South to the North. And if the South was having problems, millet and wheat could be shipped from the North to the South. In the eighteenth century, this stopped several very large-scale droughts from turning into famines with potential victims in the millions by moving grain.
The Chinese did the opposite of the British in India. Where the British made starving people walk for miles to work sites, the Chinese insisted that everybody stay at home, and they had a sophisticated system of relieving people where they were, with no requirement for work.
Secondly, every county in China had a grain storage depot. One of the most important duties of the local mandarin was to keep the granaries full, and to prevent grain from being stolen or sold and so on. Overall, China in the eighteenth century had the most effective civil service in the world. It was unique in its capacity to deal with large-sale environmental events and to relieve famine.
In European countries, this was not the case at all. At the beginning of the eighteenth century a couple million Frenchmen starved to death, and the state was almost entirely passive. So China was quite exceptional. But things began to change with the Opium Wars, the extraction of concessions from China by European countries. The system began to fragment.
Local mandarins frequently became corrupt and sold off the granaries. China in the s experienced three civil wars, the largest of which — the Taiping Rebellion — is probably the bloodiest in world history. China was thrown into an immense crisis, and one of the casualties of the crisis was the maintenance of the Grand Canal. Rebels took over parts of it, and basically you had pirates on the Grand Canal. The granary stocks began to disappear. The impact of imperialism on China contributed centrally to the disintegration of the state capacities and the infrastructures and policies that had so dramatically, almost spectacularly relieved famine in the eighteenth century.
The death toll was particularly concentrated in the Southern provinces of Northern China, which suffered an almost complete absence of rainfall.
They were difficult regions to access. Immediately after the drought commenced, it was discovered that the granaries were empty. In some counties it became literally an extinction event.
Normally in famines, whole populations will move, but in this case people were so weakened, and anything within a conceivable walking distance was also famine-impacted, that they had no choice.
They were basically imprisoned, and began to die like flies. As with India, there was another famine in China in the s. Again, in that part of China, population did not recover to its pre-famine level until the Chinese Revolution. Studies have shown that part of the reason the Chinese peasantry ended up supporting and joining the communists was that the warlord states, and the unified national government that followed, showed themselves totally incapable of managing environmental extremes.
Controlling rivers and moving grain had become a kind of hallmark of the legitimacy of governments and dynasties in China. There was again a terrible famine in the midst of World War II. The communists were very active in combating it, which won them respect and legitimacy. And what happened at the end of the s was not in any sense a deliberate attempt to starve a class or a region, as may have been partially the case with Stalin in the Ukraine.
But it was absolutely criminal nonetheless. One of the top Chinese generals was deposed when he dared to confront Mao about the famine in the Central Committee. Mao apparently denied that there was any famine at all. That falls within the realm of criminal responsibility, in the same way that the British were criminally responsible for the famines of the s and s.
MD How did the global spread of capitalism exacerbate famine and war? MD Marx covered that most eloquently in his section on primitive accumulation in Volume I of Capital. The foundations of capitalism are slavery, colonialism, the confiscation or appropriation of the individual property and communal lands of the European peasantry, the extinction of native peoples in order to open up new areas for global grain production, and so on.
In the s, after Marx, there occurred the final defeat of the Plains Indians in the United States, which suddenly made available these enormous grasslands for the cultivation of wheat. And they only occurred at the expense of the annihilation of native people. Almost every stage in the growth of this system has involved some process of violent expropriation, forced labor, displacement. Not to mention the fact that the creation of unparalleled forms of wealth in the industrial revolution went hand in hand with the pauperization of factory workers and the creation of these deadly industrial cities where people died from tuberculosis and from work-related diseases.
Some denied it, thought it was just a bloody preface to capitalism. But Rosa Luxemburg in her masterpiece The Accumulation of Capital insisted that primitive accumulation is integral and it has to continue opening and creating new markets and new sources of labor. In any case we have to acknowledge the continued role of forced and unfree labor in the capitalist world system. The belief that all this kind of ended with the emancipation of slaves in the western hemisphere is totally wrongheaded.
The second issue under consideration is war. The wars of the twentieth century were generated by competitions over markets and resources, fueled by many other factors as well. World War I may have started almost by accident, but all the conditions for a collision of the powers were already there, and many people already knew that war was inevitable because of the demand for lands and markets and the control of commerce — this competition occurring at the end of the period in which the British has been hegemonic in the global economy.
So all of these processes — the original expropriation of agriculturalists, the incorporation of the great non-European peasantries into the global system, industrial economies initially based on levels of exploitation that not only robbed people of opportunities for culture or social life but destroyed them through overwork and disease, massive imperial wars, and then of course the legacy of all of this which is a position of dependency from which many colonial economies have never recovered — these are all systemic violence.
And of course many socialists would dispute that they occurred under socialism at all.
Not only did we gain an extraordinarily wide hearing for our political ideas, but we also spooked our ideological opponents, and as a result got a good look at their rhetorical arsenal. Many of their arguments are familiar. Capitalism has an enormous death toll of its own. MD Tell me about the Indian famines of the s. MD The incorporation of the great subsistence peasantries of South and East Asia was absolutely cataclysmic. The story differed from place to place, but the final death toll was enormous. India is the most dramatic example, in part because it occurred on the watch of British liberalism.
Late Victorian Holocausts
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