Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Revolution on an Empty Stomach

Recently I was discussing Animal Farm with a student. He was preparing an essay outline and wanted to discuss how food is a metaphor for money in the novel. We discussed at length what kind of details he could pull from the novel to support his ideas. By the end of the hour though I had started to talk to him about the importance hunger has played in political revolutions. A colleague overheard me and we ended up discussing the connection between food and revolution so I thought it might be interesting to share some of these thoughts here.

Access to food might be one of the most important determinants of a regime's success. This was abundantly clear in the pre-modern era. In antiquity or the medieval period a bad harvest or drought could mean a peasant uprising was just around the corner. A history professor of the medieval period once told me that the tensest time in cities was the spring. Before the new crops were harvested and the winter stores were exhausted there was significant risk for violence within the cities.

In more recent history two revolutions seem to have been largely successful on the back of hunger: the French and Russian Revolutions. In both cases bread shortages collapsed support for the monarchy. Revolutionaries promised relief and bread if the people lent them support. Lenin famously rode the popular sentiment of "Peace, land and bread!" to power.

Modern transportation and international trade has eased the threat of famine and food shortages in many countries. Now if a crop failure occurs in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, Ukraine, Australia and elsewhere can pick up the slack. Though it should be remembered that modern governments are not immune to these issues. The 2011 Arab Spring, it may be recalled, began by the protests of a Tunisian grocer. Food prices had spiked in the months preceding the revolutions which but great strain on long-reigning dictators.

I recently finished reading a history of Napoleon III's Second French Empire. It is fascinating how many times the regime had to adjust or was nearly brought down by crop failures and food shortages. Liberals reforms were introduced, campaigns halted, and ministers fired all to deal with unrest.

Ultimately I feel that this pattern reveals a certain truth about politics. Many would hope that politics is moved by reasoning and idealism. Emotion and passion seems to be a far stronger factor, but other forces of biology are also important. I do not mean to suggest that all revolutions are merely about growling stomachs, but there is a trend. It is something to be mindful of if commodity prices rise or major crops fail. Violent political change often needs more than effective rhetoric and charismatic leaders to succeed.

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