16 million die from capitalism

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16 million die from capitalism

For 50 years powerful countries and businesses have followed neoliberal policies around the world. This means privatization, deregulation, and cuts to public services. Millions died because they didn’t have basic foods. Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel write about another way to do things.


During the 1950s and 1960s progressive and radical movements had support around the world. In the Global North, labour unions won their fight for fairer wages and public services. In the Global South, new independent governments left colonial systems and used tariffs, land reform, and industrial policy to build national economies.

These movements fought for a fairer and more just economy, and it worked. But this was a problem for capitalism, especially in the bigger countries of the Global North. It made it difficult for them to get cheap labour and the markets they had under colonialism.

Then capitalists did everything possible to stop the changes and to reverse reforms – now we call this neoliberalism. In the Global North, businesses supported by governments followed neoliberal policy, famously the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In the Global South, it happened through coups and other violent actions by the US and its allies, including in countries such as Indonesia (1965), Chile (1973), Burkina Faso (1987). and Iraq (2003).

When there were no invasions and coups, there was neoliberalism from the IMF and World Bank in the form of ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ (SAPs). Governments had to privatize national resources and public assets, cut protections on labour and the environment, cut public services and, very important, end programmes to make it possible for everyone to have enough food or other essential goods. Between 1981 and 2004, 123 countries – 82 per cent of the global population – were forced to use ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’. Bankers and technocrats in Washington DC controlled economic policy for most of the world.

These policies gave more income to the rich and profits to businesses in the Global North. But they were terrible for working people and small farmers around the world, especially for food. In India, the number of people with not enough food increased from 75 per cent to 91 per cent in rural areas, and from 57 per cent to 73 per cent in cities, during the twenty years after neoliberal reforms in 1992. In Latin America and much of sub-Saharan Africa, how much food they could buy with an unskilled labourer’s wage decreased a lot, it reached levels lower than in the 17th and 18th centuries. Something similar happened in China and the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe. There the number of people with not enough money to buy basic foods increased a lot during the reforms of the 1990s. In place after place, neoliberal policy produced food insecurity and caused terrible human suffering.


Figure 1

The Cuban alternative

But not every country followed neoliberal policy. In Cuba, after the socialist revolution in 1959, the government made a public food programme to make sure everyone could get basic foods. Cuba is the only Latin American country that did not follow ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’, and it still has this food programme now. Under this system, everyone has the right to enough nutritious food at subsidized prices. As of 2015, Cubans pay only around $2 per month for these foods, this is about 12 per cent of their market price. The Cuban government gives over $1 billion to this system every year. People are of course free to buy extra foods from local markets, community gardens, and commons; but the food programme makes sure everyone has basic foods.

Cuba’s food system is very successful at fighting hunger and early deaths. Figure 1 compares Cuba’s death rate from lack of food to three Latin American states with similar incomes: Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. This data was from the Global Burden of Disease Study (2019) by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. It shows all deaths associated with not enough foods, including lack of calories, protein, iodine, vitamin A, iron, and other nutrients.

Cuba has a lower per person income than all these states but it is much better at making sure people have enough essential goods to live. In fact, Cuba’s death rate from poor food is lower than high-income economies like Chile, the US, and France (Figure 1). The US’s per person income is almost nine times higher than Cuba’s, but its people are more likely to die from lack of calories and protein. Cuba also does this with the terrible economic blockade by the US.


Figure 2

Deaths from poor food above Cuban levels from 1990-2019.Countries in yellow have a death rate equal to or lower than Cuba's.

A long history of violence

Very many studies show the human suffering from neoliberal policy. One way to show how big the problem is comparing the death rate from poor food in Cuba to countries that have stopped or prevented progressive food policies.

The map shows the number of deaths above Cuban levels, in all countries from 1990 to 2019. Countries in light yellow had a death rate from poor food equal to or lower than Cuba’s.

There are 15.63 million extra deaths because of poor food. We could prevent this with Cuba-style policies. This includes 35,000 in the US; 409,000 in Mexico; 729,000 in China; 1.2 million in Indonesia; and 3.65 million in India. The only large countries without this problem were Eastern Europe and Russia, perhaps because of their history of socialist policy. In the rest of the world, almost 16 million people died needlessly.

These deaths are part of the capitalist world-system. It is only by keeping the incomes of the poor low that capitalism can be sure it has resources necessary for maximum profit and continuing corporate growth.

During the rise of capitalism in the 16th century, about 50 million Indigenous people in Central and South America suffered colonial genocide, dispossession, and starvation, as colonies took their land to help the European market. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European trading companies sold slaves from West Africa and millions died from disease, hunger, and overwork. In the 19th century, the British took agricultural yields in India and China and there were famines that caused tens of millions deaths. The 16 million deaths because of poor food since 1990 are only the latest in this long history of violence.

Economics for the people

It is clear that neoliberal policy has not given us food security and human development for the Majority World. Cuba shows that a better policy is to organize production directly around what people need.

But it’s not only Cuba. One 1986 study of health and education found that socialist countries were better than capitalist countries at looking after their peoples. A 1993 study in the International Journal of Health Services found that high levels of democracy and strong leftwing policies improved health. The researcher Vicente Navarro found similar conclusions in his study of health in capitalist and socialist countries. In Latin America, Cuba was better than most other countries; in Asia, China and the Soviet Union had better health than capitalist economies like India or Turkey; and in the high-income countries of Europe and North America, the social democracies with good welfare states, including Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, were better than neoliberal states like the US. The Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen said in 1981, ‘One certain thought is that communism is good for stopping poverty.’

Of course, some socialist governments in the 20th century followed policies that made hunger and deaths worse. These were not because of socialist principles but because of authoritarian governments. From 1958 to 1961, China had a famine that killed tens of millions of people, because Mao’s government took grain from the peasants to pay for industrialization and stopped all protests. The Chinese famine shows the importance of democratic organisation through accountable public institutions, worker co-operatives, and people powered organisations.

But, outside of the famine years, socialist China made good progress against deaths.

The mass poverty and hunger in our world today is not because there is not enough food. The world economy has big productive capacity, enough to end poverty many times. The problem is that this capacity is used for capital and not for human needs. With democratic socialist policy, we can do the opposite: we can build an economy for people and not for profit, where production makes sure that everyone has the goods and services necessary to live good lives.



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)