Review: Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, its Past, and its Future

In a provocative, brilliant book, Cormac Ó Gráda asks what causes famine, how people survive it, and how we have dealt with its darkest secret: cannibalism

Sat, Jul 11, 2015, 06:00


Book Title:
Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future


Cormac Ó Gráda

Princeton University Press

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Cormac Ó Gráda is deservedly acknowledged as one of the world’s leading scholars on the subject of famines. An economic historian by training, Ó Gráda has published numerous books on Ireland’s Great Famine, not to mention several edited collections and scores of journal articles and chapters on that watershed period of Irish history.

A marked feature of those earlier studies is Ó Gráda’s insistence that there is much to be gleaned from comparative historical analysis. Black ’47 and Beyond, for example, made use of Amartya Sen’s ground-breaking research on “entitlements failures”, as well as of Srinivasa Ambirijan’s study of classical economics and its influence on the management of famines in 19th-century India. If Irish studies is necessarily a small field, Ó Gráda has consistently tried to branch out to fresh pastures. The world has always been his parish.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in 2008 Princeton University Press published Ó Gráda’s Famine: A Short History, a brilliant comparative survey of some of the world’s worst subsistence crises. “Short history” is something of a misnomer, however, as Ó Gráda’s latest publication, Eating People Is Wrong (also published by Princeton) should be properly considered that book’s natural sequel. Indeed, across both monographs certain themes and questions recur. How are famines defined? What factors cause and prolong their duration? Who are famine’s principal “winners” and “losers”, and how do those fortunes play out locally? What factors make famine survival more likely, and how do the fortunate cope with the knowledge that they have been spared? Why are certain features of famine experience more prominent in the public imagination and why are others downplayed or collectively forgotten?

In the five wide-ranging and eclectic essays that follow, Ó Gráda returns to these questions again and again. In the opening chapter, for example, which gives the book its title, he trawls through the historical evidence on cannibalism.

Ó Gráda is concerned less with whether cannibalism was a common response to starvation – actually, the consumption of human flesh most certainly occurred – and more with the pall of silence that surrounds the practice, marking it off as “famine’s darkest secret” and the ultimate taboo.

The point here is that famines are by definition “limit experiences” – later Ó Gráda evokes Primo Levi’s “grey zone” to describe the suspension of ordinary rules and norms that famines typically provoke – wherein the consumption of human carcasses (and here Ó Gráda distinguishes between “survival cannibalism” and acts of “murder for human meat”) is seen as necessity’s answer to unbearable deprivation. Seen this way, the bodies dug up and consumed or murdered and eaten are, properly speaking, the victims of victims.

But the essay on cannibalism is an outlier of sorts, for the rest of the volume is preoccupied with what happens before survivalist practices grip communities. The operation of food markets is a big part of this story, and a central concern of the book is to test whether during a crisis markets typically work in favour of the poor.

Market forces

On the whole, Ó Gráda says, the evidence shows that while “market forces may have done little to mitigate famine mortality, they usually did not exacerbate it either”.

This conclusion seems questionable if one considers the ideological as well as the practical effects of markets. Indeed, much of the evidence Ó Gráda musters shows that the great faith placed in markets – especially the belief, rabid from the 18th century, that markets are a quasi-divine “natural” force – helped to generate the illusion that once unfettered competition was assured, little else needed to be done.

The doctrinaire acceptance of free markets meant not only that officials were blameless for letting markets take their course; they were, more perniciously, at fault if they interfered with the “iron laws” of supply and demand, as their interposition would only extend the period of suffering and deprivation. To the extent that free markets became an alibi for doing nothing – or next to nothing – they certainly exacerbated subsistence crises.

To be fair, Ó Gráda’s point is to nuance the prevailing discussion of market forces. In addition to the Smithian tradition (which considers markets the best means of remedying famine) and the “populist” critique (which holds that markets aggravate famines) Ó Gráda adds a third and a fourth possibility. It is, for instance, conceivable that markets may not function well in times of crisis (the so-called market-failure perspective). In addition, where competitive markets are absent or restricted “in normal times”, a period of relative food scarcity may be turned into an opportunity for profiteering by those who can source and control additional provisions.

Ó Gráda considers all four options a possibility and subjects each to searching empirical investigation. (For the lay reader the technical parts of the book are challenging, but Ó Gráda’s clarity of exposition greatly assists.) He regards An Gorta Mór, for example, as well as the Finnish famine of 1868, as classic examples of market failure; that is, in each case the catastrophic nature of the harvest loss overwhelmed functioning markets. And this conclusion has a direct bearing on the responsibility of governments: “If the state was to blame,” O’Grada writes, “it was for making inadequate entitlement transfers from rich to poor, not for undue meddling with food markets.”

The discussion of China’s Great Leap Forward, in the penultimate chapter of the book, takes the reader away from famines that occurred in the context of capitalist markets to consider the case of socialist famines. (Judged solely in terms of the death toll, they add up to some of the worst famines in recorded history.)

Here what stands out is not only the sheer madness of Mao Zedong’s plan for helter-skelter industrialisation, and the cost this exacted on the country, but also the complex human responses to the catastrophe as it unfolded.

Tough questions

The answers matter greatly if we are to judge the actions of those who were faced with difficult decisions in extraordinary times. According to Ó Gráda, one of the most insidious features of the Maoist agenda was that it made it “easier to be a bad cadre than a good one, particularly in the ‘grey zone’ that famines entail”. Could one extend this conclusion to the army of workhouse officials operating in Ireland in the 1840s, or the colonial officers deployed in India during the spate of famines in the late 19th century? For there, too, bureaucratic calculations and institutional power tended to crush more progressive humanitarian intentions.

The overriding impression one gets from reading Cormac Ó Gráda’s latest, brilliant book is that famines the world over are an ugly human stain. “There has probably never been a famine where a more caring ruling elite could not have saved more lives,” writes Ó Gráda. It is a view that begs an obvious follow-on question: what combination of structures, institutions, impulses and ideologies attenuates the sense of care that ruling elites feel for the stricken and fallen?

In Eating People Is Wrong Ó Gráda continues to provide provocative and original answers to such vital questions.

David Nally is a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge. His book Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine was published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2011