Thursday, January 08, 2009

the free market isn’t free, but cholera is cheap!

Ever wonder why some of the world (India, Brazil, many parts of Africa, some parts of China) has been so poor for so long? Your high school history class may have subtly implied that it is just is, in an almost eugenics-y way. Or your teacher may have pointed out that those areas have suffered major droughts, which caused widespread famine and disease and stalled development.

I don’t know what mine said, because I dropped out of AP history my sophomore year and took California history. I could tell you a lot about the Gold Rush.

But, anyway, as Mike Davis explains it in Late Victorian Holocausts, peasants in most countries—England and India alike—lived very similar lives up until the 19th century. They probably had some cows, grew some grain, didn’t have iPods or anything, but were mostly healthy.

Certain areas (see above), however, were in the path of El Niño’s predictable-only-if-you-have-a-PhD-in-weather path, meaning they were especially susceptible to drought some years and horrible flooding other years. This was true long before Europeans got there, but back in the day, local leaders usually distributed reserve grain or traded with other towns and mostly staved off awful consequences.

Then Westerners—and it was usually the British, my wacky imperialist ancestors—came in and imposed a “free” grain market, which wasn’t free at all because it required all sorts of rules and tricks to maintain, and by “maintain,” I mean “ensure that the British always came out on top.” Tariffs, flooded markets, uneven exchange rates, the advent of “workfare,” corrupting local leaders and removing their patrimonial responsibility to their communities…these were just some of Victorian England’s interests and hobbies.

Although it doesn’t seem hard to figure out that you can’t make a starving person do heavy labor all day, feed him a bowl of rice and expect him to have the strength to do it all again the next day, when zillions of people died—as they never had before in previous droughts—the English blamed the weather.

Starvation, cholera, plague, cannibalism and storms of locusts ensued. If rivers hadn’t been completely dried up, they probably would have run with blood.

Davis is a classic muckraker who does an admirable job of combining social and ecological history while debunking many Western myths. He’s also an academic who includes more obtuse shout-outs to other historians and economists than I care to read. I have to admit that I skipped 13 pages of the middle section on El Niño patterns and at times wished I was reading a New Yorker-article version of this book.

So if you run out and get it—and I hope you do, if for no other reason than to correct my inevitably inaccuracy-pocked summary above—then I recommend reading the first third, then spending the rest of your time on


Peter Varvel said...

The dancers from England stood with me, me-from-Los Angeles, on the top deck of the cruise ship, and looked down at the children in the streets of Mexico. They were opening taxi cab doors for the ship's passengers, in the hopes of receiving spare change.
It was easy to assume that it was all a matter of geography and chance - where you happened to be born.
We didn't feel smug. We felt we were the same as those children, except we grew up surrounded by different opportunities, which eventually led us to our present location.

Cheryl said...

Nothing like pulling up in a cruise ship to underscore some differences, huh? When I took a cruise to Ensenada, I found myself really wishing I could have parked it around the block.

Don Cummings said...

I have a visceral abhorrence of Great Britain... Does that make me a bigot?
That wet island with its insatiable needs... A world without England...might have been interesting. Probably would have ended up more French.

Claire said...

I totally skipped Global Studies as soon as I found out I didn't need to take 4 years of history to graduate HS so that I could take art instead.

Also, Heifer Int. is awesome.

Cheryl said...

DC: Yeah, most countries have done shifts as both oppressor and oppressed during the course of history, but England is pretty much all oppressor, all the time. I think my English heritage is the source of my perpetual free-floating guilt complex.

C: Hey, art is important too. Artists are the ones who make history interesting.