Department of “Man Bites Dog”

Why There Can Be No Right to Eat—Under Capitalism

May 9, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Hungry children line up to receive banana porridge in Peru, 2015. AP photoAbove: Hungry children line up to receive banana porridge in Peru, 2015. Below: A girl holds a malnourished child outside a center that works with malnourished children in Mumbai, India (2012). Forty-two percent of children in India younger than 5 are underweight and nearly 60 percent are stunted. One-third of the world’s malnourished children younger than 3 lives in India. AP photos

A girl holds a malnourished child outside a center that works with malnourished children in Mumbai, India (2012).

In February, a homeless man in Rome, Italy, was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $114 for shoplifting $4.70 worth of cheese and sausage. Italy’s highest court of appeals then threw out the conviction, saying that stealing small amounts of food in the face of the essential need for nourishment does not constitute a crime.

It’s been said that “it ain’t news if a dog bites a man. But if a man bites a dog, it’s BIG news” because it’s SO unusual. This story hit headlines in countries all over the world and became a “man bites dog” story exactly because it is extremely RARE that a court says it should NOT be a crime when a poor person takes something necessary for survival. MOST OF THE TIME, hungry people who steal food are arrested, convicted and go to jail.

In the U.S., people get locked up all the time for stealing food. In 1995, under the “3 strikes” sentencing laws, 27-year-old Jerry Dewayne Williams in Los Angeles was given 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza. In 2013, a jury in Waco, Texas, took two minutes to convict 43-year-old Willie Smith Ward for stealing a rack of ribs and gave him 50 years in prison—which means if he serves his whole sentence for the “crime” of stealing food, he will get out when he’s 93 years old. Last year, Raynette Turner, a mother of eight, died in a Mount Vernon, New York, jail cell after being arrested for allegedly shoplifting crab legs from a grocery store. Think for a minute about those “crimes” and those “sentences” and how this is multiplied over and over and over. The court’s decision in Italy really IS the exception that proves the rule, the one-in-a-million. And let us note that the articles about this case made the point that the court’s decision was not binding and did not set a precedent.

But there’s a deeper lesson here, on why this is such a glaring exception. Bob Avakian has pointed out:

One example that I’ve cited the question of the “right to eat.” Or why, in reality, under this system, there is not a “right to eat.” Now, people can proclaim the “right to eat,” but there is no such right with the workings of this system. You cannot actually implement that as a right, given the dynamics of capitalism and the way in which, as we’ve seen illustrated very dramatically of late, it creates unemployment. It creates and maintains massive impoverishment. (To a certain extent, even while there is significant poverty in the imperialist countries, that is to some degree offset and masked by the extent of parasitism there; imperialism “feeds off” the extreme exploitation of people in the Third World in particular, and some of the “spoils” from this “filter down” in significant ways to the middle strata especially. But, if you look at the world as a whole, capitalism creates and maintains tremendous impoverishment.)


Get into BAsics, the handbook for the revolution.

Many, many people cannot find enough to eat and cannot eat in a way that enables them to be healthy—and in general they cannot maintain conditions that enable them to be healthy. So even right down to something as basic as “the right to eat”—people don’t have that right under capitalism.  If you were to declare it as a right, and people were to act on this and simply started going to where the food is sold as commodities and declaring “we have a more fundamental right than your right to distribute things as commodities and to accumulate capital—we have a right to eat”—and if they started taking the food, well then we know what would happen, and what has happened whenever people do this: “looters, shoot them down in the street.”
BAsics 1:20

Enough food is actually produced in the world to feed everyone. But some 21,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, with children dying most often. In 2013, there were 161 million children under five years old whose growth had been stunted because of malnutrition. In the past two years, 795 million people, or one out of every nine people who live on this planet, suffered from chronic undernourishment.

So just imagine if hungry people took the words from this Italian court seriously. What if lots of people just went out one night to the supermarket and took what they needed so their kids could get one healthy meal? What if they didn’t do it for just one night, but for a whole month? What would happen to those stores? And what would happen if this were done not just in one city, but all over the world?

Well, to finish this thought experiment we have to look at how food ends up in the stores to begin with. As Bob Avakian has discussed, in order for something to get produced under capitalism, even for social needs like food, clothing, and shelter there has to be a “preliminary transformation into capital.” So let’s look at what this means. There has to be an investment of money in a way that turns that investment into capital. So for example, if a particular capitalist wants to make bread to sell, he’s got to take money, (perhaps with a loan from a bank) and invest this in the raw materials that go into the bread, like flour, sugar, oil, etc. He’s got to invest in the factory building, the ovens, the packaging materials, the trucks for transportation. And most importantly, if he doesn’t do this all himself, he has to hire workers—he has to invest in the purchase, the control, and the use of labor power (of people whose work adds value to all this). The capitalist is not primarily motivated by feeding the hungry, but by the objective need to make a profit and accumulate more capital. He has to stay afloat, while at the same time competing with many other capitalists also making bread and trying to accumulate more profit by gaining a bigger share of the market. These are the driving dynamics of this system, to which the capitalists themselves are subject.

So what happens if instead of the bread getting sold, hungry people “exercise” a “right to eat” and just take it? The capitalist won’t make a profit and possibly won’t even recoup the initial investment he put in to make the bread. And if this keeps happening, he won’t be able to pay back loans to the bank, he won’t have funds for further investment to produce more bread, he won’t be able to pay his rent or his workers. He will go out of business. And if hungry people go into stores and take bread and other food without paying for it, not just one day and not just in one city or country, then supermarkets will go out of business, producers of food will go out of business, and a very basic part of the capitalist economy (the production of food) will start falling apart, drastically affecting the whole capitalist system.

There is already enough food being produced to provide everyone on the planet with a healthy diet. The only reason people are going hungry and dying of starvation is because of this capitalist mode of production.

In contrast, a socialist society has a radically different economy, free of the constraints of having to produce everything through the preliminary transformation into capital. With this, it aims primarily to meet the social needs of all the people, in line with and as part of getting rid of all relations of exploitation and emancipating all of humanity. This does not mean that there would not be a need to figure out how to do this in a way that did not plunder the planet and to substantially remake how agriculture is done in order to feed everyone. Nor does it mean that care would not have to be taken to figure out adjustments in other parts of the economy, so that people could really HAVE this right—so that the necessities of life would be available to all. But it could be done—and all this has not just been outlined but gone into in some depth in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America.

So think again of those 21,000 people who will die today of hunger or hunger-related causes. Think again of how most of these are children. Think again of 161 million children whose growth will be stunted from malnutrition—picture just one of them as she goes to bed hungry tonight. Then think about how the only thing making that happen is this system and how this could be eradicated through communist revolution.

What are you gonna do?


Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

REVOLUTION AND RELIGION The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion, A Dialogue Between Cornel West & Bob Avakian
BA Speaks: Revolution Nothing Less! Bob Avakian Live
BAsics from the Talks and Writings of Bob Avakian
Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)
WHAT HUMANITY NEEDS Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism
You Don't Know What You Think You 'Know' About... The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation Its History and Our Future Interview with Raymond Lotta
The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need