Reflections on Famine Crime, Global War and Activism

From the end of the Cold War until the mid 2,000’s, there had been a downward trend in the number of conflicts and conflict-related deaths. Alex de Waal’s concept of ‘famine crimes’ represents a singular and significant attempt to understand the reversal we are now seeing.[1] In drawing our attention to the procedural similarities between famine and mass atrocity, de Waal has also begun an important dialogue with law. From a political theory perspective, this note is a modest contribution to this significant body of work. It is a preliminary attempt to explore some of the structural and global implications of famine crime.

The idea of famine crime challenges the conventional humanitarian gaze, so to speak. It undermines the possibility of a purely ‘humanitarian’ emergency.[2] The causes and effects of so-called humanitarian disasters, even ‘natural’ ones, are rooted in and mediated through political systems and societal dispensations. If not meeting with international indifference, external aid is usually an expression of the donor’s non-humanitarian political or security considerations. The idea of famine crime also effectively intersects with de Waal’s concept of ‘counter humanitarian warfare’. That is, modes of warfare that openly disregard humanitarian norms, are indifferent to human life and suffering while attracting little, if any, international condemnation. Together, they constitute a powerful analytical apparatus.

New wars redux

 Just as famine crime challenges the humanitarian gaze, the idea of counter-humanitarian warfare plays a similar role in relation to conflict. It questions, for example, what could be called the progressive critique of the new wars. This view accepts the assumption that societies in the global South are ‘pressure cookers’ that require strong rulers to keep their complex ethnic and religious components from flying apart.[3]Citing the recent foreign policy debacles in the Middle East, the progressive critique positions liberal interventionists (like Tony Blair) as, at best, not understanding what they were getting into. As a result, the whole exercise has been a predicable and dangerous failure.[4] Rather than a defeat, however, through the lens of counter-humanitarian warfare, today’s new wars[5] can be read as a success.   

To talk of ‘old’ and ‘new’ wars inevitably involves generalisation and simplification. Conscious of these problems, the views below are points of departure and exploration, rather than arrival and closure. Since its Seventeenth Century inception, capitalism has always been global, if you will. At several levels, the wanton violence, dispossession and enslavement that characterised its early expansion have some historic affinity with today’s ‘new’ counter-humanitarian wars.[6] Starting in England, the enclosure of the commons, and the brutal eviction of those that worked them, moved through Ireland before reaching its blood meridian between the New World and the shores of Africa.[7] In contrast, the ‘old’ wars denote a middle period of classic European inter-state conflict and the attempt to make liberal imperialism sustainable. Framed by concerns to directly occupy or control territory, the old war’s relatively restrained approach to infrastructure, social capital and human life was conditioned by long-term governmental aims.

Today’s new wars – or new wars redux, if you will – rather than seek to occupy territory as such, are more concerned with denying the ability to resist by wantonly destroying critical infrastructure and social capital, while uprooting whole sections of the population. Deliberately attacking a society’s economic and welfare systems, together with the household and community organisations, and the skilled or professional classes that invest and work them, is tantamount to destroying a peoples’ means of social reproduction. Social reproduction embraces the whole spectrum of relations and institutions that intersect the biological birthing and rearing of children. In particular, it sees the production of goods and services, together with the production of life, as one integrated process that defines distinct modes of racial and gendered sociality. Social reproduction, especially its central role in the production of labour, draws on an extensive critical, political and feminist literature.[8]

Basic argument

In being able to cheaply eradicate economic autonomy and – with accuracy, minimal risk and little international censure – degrade political opposition by destroying its means of social reproduction, the new wars have been nothing if not a success. With the embedding of smart technology, mass surveillance and automated warfare, the unfortunate irony is that, from this perspective, things can only get better. The good news, however, is that this change of gaze also allows us to know the enemy and begin to push-back.

Trends in contemporary activism point to the importance of equivalence and overlaps among spatially separate forms of dispossession and resistance, including those that blur the North/South distinction. The basic argument here is that famine crime and counter-humanitarian warfare in the global-South are part of a continuum with the so-called hostile environment that ‘neoliberalism’[9] has created in the North. Such a connection is, rhetorically at least, reinforced by the fact that members of the North’s erstwhile ‘coalitions of the willing’, through exclusion and austerity, are now waging war on migrants and the poor within their own borders. Measured on this continuum, counter-humanitarian warfare is, so to speak, neoliberalism on steroids.

Leveling effects of counter-humanitarian warfare

Famine crime, as de Waal points out, takes time. Several months are required for an individual to starve to death. Omar Dewachi’s moving account of the slow rise and relatively quick destruction of the Iraqi public health system adds another dimension to the connection between famine and time.[10] Dewachi qualifies the conventional account of the dissolution of public health in the global South. That is, since the 1980s, how structural adjustment, privatisation and market deregulation, together with the Trojan Horse of the aid industry, have displaced and qualified the state as sole provider. Most public welfare systems in the South have progressively surrendered to corporate interests, Big Pharma and NGOs remotely managing standardised welfare packages.[11] Rather than decades, the deregulated post-social norm of effective abandonment[12] was rapidly imposed on an autonomous Iraq by the brutal hammer-blows of war, UN sanctions and occupation.

Iraq’s public health system had its origins in the Ottoman period. Reflecting the logic of the old wars, its professionalisation, centralisation and internationalisation took a big step forward under British colonial rule. The post-colonial socialist and Ba’athist regimes expanded public health further, reaching a high-point during the vicious Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s when, reliant on the mobilisation of women, infant child mortality halved as primary health care was extended to the country’s periphery. At the time, this was widely celebrated by the UN as a development success.

A century in the making, within little more than a decade, Iraq’s proven ability to maintain and strengthen social reproduction lay in total ruin.[13] Iraq is now incapable of providing all but basic health care within its borders. From icons of modernity, the few remaining doctors are targets for assassination, kidnapping and the reparational violence of patient families. It is the relative speed of this destruction of autonomy that is important.

Global war

In the mid 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia was in the midst of its own abrupt demotion to the globalised post-social norm, US military analysts were consolidating a doctrine of rapid dominance, known as Shock & Awe, that envisaged the rapid and comprehensive disruption of a society’s critical infrastructure, just shy of total destruction, such that all enemy resistance, physical and mental, becomes impossible.[14] By this time, however, the eminently mimetic new war genie was out of the bottle. The Yugoslavian and Iraqi experience would be relived by others. As the subsequent multi-actor trashing of the means of social reproduction in Libya, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and beyond suggests, not only the US and its allies – all sides and persuasions, internal and external – would soon be pulling the levelling levers of counter-humanitarian warfare.

The Middle East, for example, has experienced massive acts of purposeful de-development. The new wars redux have overseen the pulverisation and the scattering to the four winds of the skilled, scientific and professional classes previously associated with what were widely seen as technically proficient, educated, middle-income countries. The idea of ‘collateral damage’ represents the seamless transformation of biblical levels of destruction into an unfortunate by product of trying to make the world a safer place. It shields liberal sensibility from one of the most violent and destructive episodes of our time. Emerging as Yugoslavia disintegrated, the idea of urbicide, or the killing of cities, tries to capture this moment.[15] Such violent de-development through the destruction of urbanity is tantamount to the dehumanisation of those on the receiving end and their ejection from modernity.[16]

Regarding famine crime and the politics of law, a key problem is the placing of political economy beyond the bounds of criminal law. Borrowing from Achille M’bembe, the emerging forensic techniques that seek to establish a famine crime also function to uncover the transformation of politics into necropolitics.[17] Such forensics expose the interleaved economic, security and military calculations that produce urbicide and, in some cases, the culpable appearance of mass starvation. When the dogs of war hound the means of social reproduction rather than each other, however, the whole meaning of ‘war’ changes. The clashing of regular armies or struggles over territorial claims are largely absent in the new wars. Old wars left civil society out of the frame. For the new wars, however, civil society is the target. In a globalised world, the fate of civil society is also a matter of international significance. Together with famine, the new wars also promote mass displacement and waves of irregular international migration. Rather than limited or regional war, the new wars redux herald the appearance of global war.

Decentering the North

Global war demands that we decenter our gaze in order to glimpse the link between the levelling counter-humanitarian warfare in the global South and neoliberalism’s hostile environment in the North. Making this connection requires drawing on the post-colonial critique of borders. The North/South frontier should not be equated with, for example, a metaphorical Fortress Europe or Trump’s Wall. The North/South ‘border’ is not a line of separation; it does not divide an inside from an outside. Despite appearances, the recent global explosion of borders, fences and check-points[18] are not meant to keep out. Europe, for example, has never contained so many migrants. Borders constitute mechanisms or processes of contingent inclusion.[19] They order and regulate different speeds, functions and status to produce the striated and heterogeneous space of the globalised world. Seeing borders as a methodology or process is important as it enables us to decenter our view of the global North.[20]

If capitalism has always been global, from the outset modernity has been multi-centred. Capitalism’s North/South frontier, whatever its historic configuration – metropolis/colony, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped – has consistently functioned as a process for orchestrating the heterogeneity of the world. The different political and regulatory environments involved provide two-way opportunities for the anticipation, experimentation and the trialling of new modes of governance and institutional development.[21]

The retreat by capital from supporting social reproduction in the global South begins with structural adjustment in the 1980s.[22]Occurring at the same time, what is often glossed as deindustrialisation and the move towards flexible labour markets signals a similar retreat in the North. Compared to the unprecedented mid-Twentieth Century welfare gains made by workers under the auspices of Fordism and the social state, the French geographer Christophe Guilluy cogently describes this historic retreat in term of the more or less violent ‘expulsion of the working class from the middle class.’[23] As the social commons have been converted into private property and wealth and passed upwards,[24] global inequality has grown relentlessly. In the UK and the USA, with the hollowing out of working class and middle class living standards, levels of inequality now rival those of the pre-WWI Belle Epoque.[25]

In the UK, the social effects of the retrenchment of welfare spending, which intensified after the 2008 financial crisis, have been extreme and punitive. In a report reminiscent of those documenting human rights abuse in the South, the UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty has recently described the UK’s dismantling of the welfare state, the increasing numbers of working poor, growing child poverty, the mushrooming of food banks and homelessness – together with a decline in life expectancy for some groups – as being the result of deliberate policy pursued for ideological rather than rational economic reasons.[26]

Capital’s global assault on social reproduction has created a post-social continuum of financialisation, deregulated markets, weakened trade unions, curtailed labour rights, and the spread of precarity, casualised labour and non-remunerative work that interconnects the inhuman hostile environments of the global North with the counter-humanitarian wars of the South. Regarding the later, if the post-social world did not properly exist, or the access of financial capital was blocked, these wars have rapidly normalised the situation.

The struggle for global justice

To finish on a forward note, to know the enemy is the start of the push-back. In the past, policy makers would, as a matter of routine, been called upon to address the ‘global challenges’ sketched above. With the collapse of consensus politics, however, the age of the practioner has passed. The practioner as choice-creating hero emerged in the 1980s, out of the final defeat of worker and national liberation struggles that peaked in the 1960s.[27] A triumphant technocratic managerialism claimed the so-called centre ground as its own. Today, however, governments, multilateral institutions, corporations and aid agencies are widely dismissed as part of the problem, not the solution. With the return of politics,[28] so to speak, the age of the activist is upon us.

If the climate rebellion is indicative of contemporary activism, the emerging decentred approach to the heterogeneity of global experience is encouraging. To borrow a term from Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, the advancing Climate Leviathan[29] impacts the globe’s heterogeneous communities and systems differently. However, because these different experiences result from the same Leviathan, the encounter also functions structurally as a potential unifying force. A space opens for the discovery of chains of political equivalence[30] between and across the heterogeneity of multi-speed globalised space.

Spatially separate, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse, and having many faiths and none, a global precariat has emerged from the attack of the Capital Leviathan, if you will, on social reproduction. Despite the differences among the precariat, however, objectively its motley ranks have more commonality among themselves than with the reactionary-populist elites currently vying for its support. If class can be defined in terms of a similarity in how the hostile environment is subjectively experienced,[31] could that same similarity of experience also be the basis for a new era of humanitarian and legal activism in the struggle for global justice?

Mark Duffield

Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol


[1] Alex de Waal, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Cambridge Polity Press, 2018).

[2] Etienne Balibar, “On the Politics of Human Rights,” Constellations 20, no. 1 (2013): 18-26.

[3] For its deployment to explain the fragmentation of Yugoslavia see, Carl-Ulrik Schierup, “Prelude to the Inferno: Economic Disintergration and the Political Fragmentation of Yugoslavia,” Balkan Forum 1, no. 8 (1993): 80-120.

[4] For an account of liberalism’s recent willingness to celebrate failure see, David Chandler, “How the World Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Failure: Big Data, Resilience and Emergent Causality,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 44, no. 3 (2016): 391-410.

[5] These denote the back-to-back conflicts stretching from the end of the Cold War to the present. They start with the ‘humanitarian wars’ of the 1990s, which often involving various Western ‘coalitions of the willing’. Since the War on Terror, however, these encounters have morphed into highly destructive regional conflicts, such as those in the Middle East, that capture de Waal’s concept of counter-humanitarian warfare.

[6] For discussion see, Sandro Mezzadra, “The Topicality of Prehistory: A New Reading of Marx’s Analysis of ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation’,” Rethinking Marxism 23, no. 3 (2011): 302-321.

[7] The whole episode aroused outrage and opposition, initially at least, among the emerging nondenominal religious opinion of the time. See, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London & Brooklyn NY: Verso, 2012).

[8] See, Tithi Bhattacharya, ed. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017).

[9] Instead of seeing neoliberalism as a ‘role back’ of the state, here it is understood more as its political repurposing to ensure, among other things, the sidelining and erosion of former state and business support for social reproduction.

[10] Omar Dewachi, Ungovernable Life: Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

[11] Susanne Jaspars, “A Role for Social Nutrition in Strenthening Accountablilty for Mass Starvation?,” in Occassional Paper #20 (Medford, Boston: World Peace Foundation, Tufts University 2019).

[12] For a wider discussion see, Mark Duffield, Post-Humanitarianism: Governing Precarity in the Digital World. (Cambridge: Politity Press, 2019.

[13] During the 40 days bombing in 1991 that comprised the Gulf War, approximately 1/5th of tonnage dropped on Germany throughout the six years of WWII was directed at Iraq’s cities. From, Dewachi, 2017

[14] Harlan K Ulman and James P Wade, “Shock & Awe: Achievinng Rapid Domiance ” (Washington DC: National Defense University 1996).

[15] David Campbell, Stephen Graham, and Daniel Bertrand Monk, “Introduction to Urbicide: The Killing of Cities?,” Theory and Event 10, no. 2 (2007): 1-8.

[16] This ejection is, arguably, a reversal of the universal struggle to be counted as modern that first emerged with the successful Haitian slave revolt. See, Sybille Fischer, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Culture of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[17] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics ” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11-40.

[18] Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

[19] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson,”Border as Method, or, the Mulitication of Labour”, Transversal (March 2008), Accessed 12 September 2019.

[20] Among other things, it challenges the moral nationalism that underpins the humanitarian gaze and the assumption that the South is the natural home of humanitarianism.

[21] This mutual anticipatory and experimental function is captured in Hannah Arendt’s idea of the boomerang effect. See, Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Inc, 1994). An example of this relates to the Iraq’s public health system. The marked increase in the professionalisation, centralisation and internationalisation of Iraqi public health during the colonial period was, in many respects, a rehearsal for the British post-war National Health Service. See, Dewachi, 2017.

[22] Giovanni Andrea Cornia, “Economic Decline and Human Welfare in the First Half of the 1980s”, in, Adjustment with a Human Face: Volume 1, ed. G A Cornia, R Jolly, and F Stewart (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp 11-47.

[23] Christophe Guilluy, The Twiight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery and the Future trans. Malcolm Debevoise (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2019).

[24] Also important here, but beyond the scope of this note, is the whole issue of the extraction of data and the advent of ‘surveillance capitalism’. See, Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight of a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (London: Profile Books, 2019).

[25] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Tweny-First Century (Harvard Harvard University Press, 2014).

[26] Philip Alston, “Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights”. (London 2018).

[27] David Booth, “Marxism and Development Sociology: Interpreting the Impasse,” World Development 13, no. 7 (1985): 761-787.

[28] See, Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).

[29] See, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Plantary Future (London & New York: Verso 2018).

[30] See, Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London & Brooklyn NY: Verso, 2018).

[31] Dhelia Snoussi and Laurie Mompelat, “‘We Are Ghosts’ – Race, Class and Institutional Prejudice,” (London: Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) & Runnymede Trust, 2019).

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