Open Essay

The Hunger Games

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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What does social justice mean when everyone has enough to eat?

ACCORDING TO A new survey by the World Health Organization, half the children in the world are now obese. This revelation was largely ignored by the UK media, perhaps because only about one in ten of British children is affected. ‘Not our problem’ seemed to be the attitude.

But obesity levels in the US, China and much of East Asia are far higher, and on a global level this is a truly worrying development. Why? Because food is such a bedrock of our communities and therefore of our politics.

Of course, in a headline sense it is good news that at least one of the horsemen of the apocalypse may be out of a job. Famine is terrible; the most dehumanising of catastrophes, with its gradual destruction of bodies and social bonds, and the appalling exploitation it generates. It is devoutly to be wished that the planet really is on the way to getting enough to eat, and distributing it more evenly.

However, we should perhaps adjust our expectations about what will be achieved when our plates are all regularly filled, because we already have strong indications of what the politics of a well-fed world might be like. What has been going on all over the West recently—the strange, unexpected disruptions that have been classed as ‘revolts’—may not be so much post-truth as post-hunger.

A sure supply of food might unpick both our health and our political systems, and it might well prove to be an open door to more extremism, not less. Over 60 per cent of adults are obese in the Middle East. Milk and honey may be in plentiful supply there, but the region is hardly yet a prime example of a peaceful society.

We know that eating too much is bad for us, but a lot of us do, and it makes us ill. Cheap food can be debilitating, it seems, and under systems of socialised medicine, personal savings on the shopping must be set off against public expense on healthcare. Coming after a struggle over millennia to secure regular meals, the ironies surrounding our new-found ability to eat ourselves to death are legion.

Unfortunately this is a struggle that cannot be avoided. We all need to eat every day, and huge sums are spent on making, then persuading us to consume fatty, sugary, salty foods that do as much to endanger us as to sustain us through a few more hours. And the relentless pressure of eating has already sparked radical rebellion all across the West—eating disorders or refusal-based diets, such as veganism, or anti-industrial solutions like foraging.

So the question is being directly posed: when we have enough to eat, what do we worry about next?

A hungry man is an angry man, but a sated man has his mind on other kinds of competition. This includes who you see in the street, what kind of house your neighbours live in, and who is in the shop, on both sides of the counter

The causes of the Trump and Brexit ‘revolts’ remain controversial, but perhaps the key lies somewhat nearer our stomachs and our wallets. Taken as one thing, Trump-Brexit was more of a cultural than an economic phenomenon, as social groups below the traditional bourgeoisie—Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’— tipped the political balance by abandoning either their apathy or their habitual allegiances.

In the past, the sub-affluent classes were bought off with welfare systems designed to mitigate the harshness of industrial capitalism in its less generous moments. This was a hangover from the left’s accusations that capitalism would starve the proletariat to death in its drive for higher profits. Marx and Engels defiantly announced this in 1848, and much subsequent social policy—whether it admitted it or not—took the warning seriously. As a result, wealth was then not distributed by wages alone, but also by doles, food subsidies and a variety of social entitlements. State welfare systems were meant to provide shelter, healthcare and a basic income. Social peace was the goal, leaving the workers nourished and the capitalist classes unmolested in quiet enjoyment of their profits.

The banishment of hunger many mean that there will be no more grand revolutions, which would surely be a good thing, for although the odd revolution has been triggered by famine, history proves that revolutions are more likely to cause famines than vice versa.

Political change in the future may therefore be more gradual, but it may be no less disturbing. The great agent may turn out to be welfare systems themselves—a spectacular backfiring of an idea that was supposed to ensure social stability. For, by 2016, the welfare net was not enough to protect many Westerners from what they considered deprivation, and some were even enraged that welfare was available to people they considered as outsiders.

This is the sharp end of the new question: what does social justice mean when everyone has enough to eat? The removal of hunger from the political landscape calls directly into question what politicians can legitimately promise, and what governments can realistically be expected to provide.

Relative prosperity is always going to be emotive, but the great resentments of the recent upheavals have not been about individuals so much as against entire social subgroups

With everyone’s basic needs supplied, the idea of social justice has been stretched to include a comprehensive agenda of equalities, reaching into areas well beyond basic subsistence or access to employment opportunities. And new hyphenated identities have not been the winners in this development. No. Recently the strongest identities to emerge in the West have been the static, native identities supposedly rendered obsolete by all the choices on offer in the modern world. And this trend may actually be about to intensify, because the general elevation of living standards has refocused our political attention.

Our politics has started to revolve around comparative lifestyles, with endless scrutiny of one person’s entitlements compared to another’s. If work is not too hard to find, if education and clean water are available to all, what can an insurgent message be? It is likely to be about social cohesion in its most archaic forms, about qualities that cannot be modernised or chosen—skin colour, language, ethnicity, ancestral faith. Our comparative senses have been elevated and sharpened. Small differences matter more when large issues retreat. Politicians are reduced to factional rivalry over arcane differences, while among the general population we see the growth of relatively trivial arguments about externals.

This is not to praise hardship as elevating, or to deny that some people are still struggling desperately with harsh life circumstances in modern Europe and North America. But now the political playing field has not so much levelled as expanded in all directions, to accommodate the demands of new pressure groups with concerns far beyond subsistence. On the one hand, there are gender issues, balanced on the other by straight cultural chauvinism.

Food is the great leveller—we all need it. But when we are all levelled, what bothers us then? If our children are fed, what else can we do for them? This is a particularly relevant question in India, where a large segment of the population is still underfed. When problems of production, storage and distribution are solved, what will happen? What does the experience of the well-fed West teach us?

A hungry man is an angry man, but a sated man has his mind on other kinds of competition and fulfilment, such as the family, which may call up yet wider spheres of importance— the neighbourhood and the community. This includes who you see in the street, what kind of house your neighbours live in, and who is in the shop, on both sides of the counter. Such things are mostly beyond the grasp or gift of governments; we would probably all shudder if they weren’t. In the UK and US, the revolts of the so-called localists, or the ‘somewheres’, or the insurgent right, or whatever new name is cooked up for them, have been about these post-hunger, entitlement issues.

Over the years, the best that Western governments have done for us is largely passive and enabling; active state control does not have a good track record. But here we have a kind of popular discontent that cannot be bought off. It is not about bread or even circuses; most of the population has enough of both right now. It is about whom you are eating or watching with, about whom you can sit next to and expect your enjoyment to be shared. These are relative discontents, not absolute, and there are no simple remedies.

This may well be a glimpse of things to come. Relative prosperity is always going to be emotive, but the great resentments of the recent upheavals have not been about individuals so much as against entire social subgroups. President Trump will not be able to fully satisfy the discontents that swept him to power, except by a very broad programme of ethnic rearrangement or cultural revival. Jobs won’t be enough for his people, because the blue-collar nationalists who are his hardest core don’t just want jobs, they want other people not to have them. When the focus moves from me as an individual to me as a community member, my discontents are much harder to appease.

Perhaps this was always coming, but we seem woefully ill-prepared for it. A well-fed world might turn out to be a much nastier, ill-tempered place than we have all assumed it would be. We have all been taught by our spiritual educators than material goods will not make us happy; it might well be true that having enough to eat will not satisfy us either.