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New Left Review 9, May-June 2001


The hidden history of mass famines in the time of the Pax Britannica is the object of Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts. What of their post-colonial sequels, and the political lessons to be learnt from both?

MICHAEL WATTS

BLACK ACTS

The process of ‘opening up’ to The World Market, says a character in William Morris’s novel News From Nowhere, ‘shows us at its worst the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity.’ In what remains one of the great excoriations of Europe’s civilizing mission, Morris denounced the ‘homicidal madmen and desperados’ of imperial conquest, the ‘ignorant adventurers’ breaking up traditional communities, the brutality of market-making, the robbery of exchange and the reckless pursuit of profit—‘jaws of the ravening monster’, as Morris put it, and ‘the slavery of hopeless toil’. Karl Polanyi’s sober account of the horrors of the self-regulating market in The Great Transformation—the ‘catastrophe’ visited on customary societies by the violent dissolution of their basic institutional fabric—appears almost bland and understated by comparison.

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