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Class and Group Relations/Post-Famine Political Sociology

Relations between those who rule during famine and those who starve rarely survive intact. Modern episodes of famine have encouraged some rulers to view populations in Malthusian terms, as subjects in experiments governed by 'natural laws' of demography or political economy, or conversely (and sometimes simultaneously) as reason to expand their sphere of biopolitical controls on populations and modes of reproduction (Ross 1998). Ireland not only lost most of its population to death or migration; it was also treated by its British rulers as a laboratory for the testing of Malthusian ideas. Experiments with medical and poor relief were made in this period, and more profound changes aimed to reconfigure agrarian relations towards a more capitalistic, surplus arrangement of landlords and labour (Nally 2008; Kinealy 2002). It was said that 'Ireland died of political economy' (Grada 2000, 6), but the famine played ideological and functional roles in how it reshaped Irish society to be more receptive to capitalist agricultural growth (Nally 2008). The idea of famine as shocking society into accepting radical system change fits the 'disaster capitalism' setting of aid-dependent Bangladesh. Similarly, communist famines 'helped the regimes to enforce the collective order', enabling a rapid forcing- through of industrial and other policies (Wemheuer 2014, 248).

Famines typically alter perceptions of and relations between ruling classes and the population. Strict internal migration controls to keep peasants from flooding to the cities and draconian birth control policies were adopted after China's Great Leap Famine (Wemheuer 2014). Reforms to Chinese agriculture—and other aspects of state policy and economy (Jisheng 2012)— were approached with caution, and efforts to control or eradicate peasant modes of production were replaced with investments in modernizing technology. In the USSR, state policy strongly emphasized mass living standards after the famine, and foodgrain imports to stabilize and strengthen food security became more important from Khrushchev onwards (Wemheuer

2014). Bangladeshi public policy was reoriented towards rural, agricultural, and food security concerns after the famine, and successive regimes have reversed, or at least taken the edge off, urban bias in public policies on food security, social protection, and agriculture.[1]

  • [1] The point is developed in 'Out of the Shadow of Famine' (Ahmed et al. 2000).
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