Can Food Riots win Food Security?

Provision politics from early modern Europe to the crises of 2008

John Bohstedt

Food riots (crowd violence over food: seizing food, lowering prices, blocking shipments, or attacking state agents, et al.) transgress order and authority in ways that often compel rulers’ attention and action. But motivations alone – hunger or even an outraged moral economy – do not explain food riots, as mass media often assume. Otherwise world history would consist of little else. Rather food riots and their outcomes are core processes of a ‘politics of provisions’. So, in what circumstances do common people’s necessities create a political necessity for their rulers to act? What combination of ingredients shapes such ‘collective bargaining by riot,’ and accounts for food rioters’ political leverage – or lack of it? What can the history of provision politics in different times and places suggest about the political efficacy of food riots in a global political economy?

First, the politics of provisions has usually depended on horizontal and vertical sociopolitical relationships: both solidarities that enabled common people to act collectively, with sufficient hope that benefits would outweigh costs and risks; and reciprocities between rulers and people that permitted accountability, such as paternalism, patronage, social contract, democracy, work or ethnic relations, and so on.
Such interacting relationships have typically been tested in previous crises, whose outcomes were weighed and deposited in social memory. Other ingredients in provision politics often included: regime capacity; regime crisis (including war); shared ideologies; larger political economies of property, power and culture; leadership among both rioters and rulers; strategic bargaining among players in the moment; and accidental factors.

The ‘recipe’ of factors in provision politics varied over time and place. Some countries fostered ‘successful’ traditions of food riots and provision politics that ‘paid off’ for both rioters and rulers. Other polities prevented food riots by massive relief-preparations or massive repression. Negative provision politics led to huge famines in Victorian Ireland and India and Mao’s China. What is remarkable is that food riots could move, and even shake, well-armed late-twentieth century dictatorships in some political conjunctures, as for instance in the ‘IMF austerity’ riots.

The food riots of 2007-8 put food security on global agendas and seemed to change discourses, even those of neoliberalism, and to call forth a cornucopia of blueprints. Will action follow? Clearly, sustainable food security for the world’s peoples is an uphill battle, as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has recently shown.
Will contemporary crises promote substantial material progress toward wider and sustainable food security? Or are entrenched political-economic obstacles too great and too far beyond the reach of a politics of provisions triggered by riot? The jury is still out, and evidence points in more than one direction.

This paper proposes to assay the politics of provisions from early modern England and France, and the Victorian British Empire, through Ming and Qing China, to the ‘IMF riots’ of the 1980s and recent food riots, to identify critical parameters that have played, and still might play, a part in the outcomes of the food crises of 2007-12.