Nobody the Dread

There’s a very good article by Noam Chomsky which I dig out whenever the Great Man has said something stupid about Camobodia, or got caught in posession of a dodgy fact, to remind me that he is not entirely bad. It reminds us of two important points from Sen and Dreze’s Hunger and Public Action, one of which is approaching a platitude and the other of which is an equally well-substantiated claim, but one which is incendiary enough to quite easily get you accused of the equivalent of Holocaust denial for mentioning it. The two facts are:

  • Mao’s forcible “modernisation” of Chinese agriculture which caused between 25 million and 40 million deaths from famine in the period 1958-61, the so-called Great Leap Forward, could not possibly have taken place in a liberal capitalist democracy.
  • The inequality of distribution of incomes, medical resources and food in India, which by Sen and Dreze’s estimates resulted in an average “excess mortality” of 4 million deaths per year (compared with China, a country starting from an equivalent position at the beginning of India’s “experiment” with democracy in 1947; the estimates were for the period 1947-79), exists as a direct consequence of India’s liberal capitalist democracy.

We all know who to blame for the 40 million Chinese who died of famine and disease between 1958 and 1961; Chairman Mao, who is recorded as one of the great monsters of the twentieth century chiefly for this reason. But where should our righteous anger be directed on behalf of the 128 million Indians who died in a similar manner between 1947 and 1979? Whose face do we imagine looking out over this pyramid of corpses?

Perhaps the smiling countenance of Gandhi, the original author of the Indian state? Or perhaps Nehru and his family, who might have done more? Or the face of some British colonial administrator, who left the nascent state holding such a bad hand? Or the face of Adam Smith, who would still tell us that this inequality of resources is the only possible path to development? Or is this nobody’s fault? Are we really so sure of the doctrine of acts and ommissions that we think 128 million people can be dead from entirely predictable consequences without it being a very terrible crime indeed?

Or maybe, we should grow up a bit and accept that History is just one Damned Thing after another; it is a horrendous engine that eats unrealised possibilities. We the living are the tiny, lucky tip of an enormous iceberg of disastrous outcomes and missed opportunities, and there is more or less nothing that anyone can do about it. To accuse a man of one murder is to say something concrete; to accuse him of twenty million is just to make a political statement of your own. If we want to condemn Stalin, Hitler or Mao, then we have ample material to do so, because we know what kind of people they were.


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