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.

One of the achievements of Mike Davis’s extraordinary Late Victorian Holocausts is to make us wonder whether Morris and other revolutionary critics of Pax Britannica were radical enough.footnote1 Davis has unleashed the most sustained broadside against Victorian capitalism in a century. He has offered us an archaeology of market utopianism, unearthing the horrific costs, the ‘holocausts’, produced by what Beatrice Webb called the ‘employers’ gospel’ underlying the Victorian domestic order. It is of course the figure of the post-Speenhamland pauper that resides at the heart of Polanyi’s description of the antinomy of market and community in early nineteenth-century England. Davis has projected that destitution onto the imperial screen of the fin-de-siècle world market. In this terrifying magnification, we are forced to witness the deaths of some sixty million Asian, Latin American and African peasants, who perished in the ‘colonial genocides’ between 1870 and 1906. Rarely was the violence of primitive accumulation so unfettered as in the run-up to the Belle Epoque. Late Victorian Holocausts has been properly described as a veritable black book of liberal capitalism. It is also, after decades of bland rehabilitation, a thundering indictment of the so-called Golden Age of imperialism.

News from Nowhere was published in 1891, during what we now know to have been one of the most severe El Niño Southern Oscillations (ENSO) of the last two centuries. The El Niño drought—more precisely, the warm phase of the active ocean component of a vast, Pacific Basin-wide oscillation in air mass and water temperature—devastated China, Brazil, India and parts of Africa. It was, in fact, one in a series of synchronous climatic perturbations between 1876 and 1902 that created the environmental setting for a deadly trio of global subsistence crises in 1876–79, 1889–91 and 1896–1902. Late Victorian Holocausts sets out to show, however, that the fate of tropical humanity between 1870 and 1914 was not tethered to natural disasters or grain shortage, but rather represented—in the words of Alfred Russell Wallace—one of ‘the most terrible failures of the century’. Davis locates this failure, the needless loss of millions of lives, at the ground zero of the late imperial order, a world economy centred in London. Subsistence crises have social origins, he argues, that are best grasped through a causal triangulation: a depletion or loss of ecological entitlements, a radical deepening of household poverty, and a decapacitation of state provision. The famines of the age were no mere accident of climatic history. They were over-determined artifacts of the workshop of laissez-faire capitalism, products of a lethal suturing of market utopianism to neo-Darwinism.

Davis wants to retain the idea that there is an extraordinary density of invisible environmental instability in modern history. Here the discovery of ENSO in the 1960s was a signal achievement, for it isolated what has proved to be the fundamental source of climatic variability after the cycle of the seasons. But while Davis endorses the vast, ramified social consequences of the see-sawing of air masses over the Indo-Pacific, he is alert to the dangers of replicating the dreadful logic of an earlier political economy: namely, late Victorian environmental determinism and its confident claim, embodied in the reports of the Indian Famine Commission of 1878, that ‘drought causes famine’. Late Victorian Holocausts offers a striking rebuke to Brian Fagan’s apocalyptic treatment of El Niño in Floods, Famines and Emperors. footnote2 In Davis’s account, what stands between El Niño and starvation are not ‘overcrowded lands’—as Fagan puts it in an egregiously Malthusian account of the Sahel famine of the 1970s—but the ‘organized famine’ produced by peasant commercialization, declining terms of trade, and the formal and informal exactions of the Gold Standard and the colonial state apparatuses. What made late nineteenth-century ENSO events so devastating was the chronic vulnerability of millions of disenfranchised subjects, trapped in poverty and debt, haunted by the bleak authoritarianism of market and state alike. The many thousands who died in Madras in 1876, in Shandong in 1899, in the Brazilian sertão in 1878, in Sudan and Egypt in the late 1880s, were not victims of technological backwardness or ‘lives of idleness’—Richard Temple’s repugnant description of the Deccan peasantry. They were the casualties of the grinding gears of modern economic and political systems. The market, said Karl Kautsky in his great treatise, The Agrarian Question, is ‘even more moody and incalculable than the weather’.footnote3 Davis charts the lethal interlocking of three great wheels of incalculability: global climate, world markets, and the late Victorian imperium. Liberal capitalism served as a gigantic killing machine, starving to death millions of peasants and tribals who produced from the land, and throwing many more into proletarian destitution.

In point of fact, he has written two books. One is a fascinating scientific detective story: the nineteenth-century mystery of the causes behind the global droughts between 1870 and 1900. The search for the riddle of El Niño—the recognition that normal rainfall events over the globe change in response to oscillations of air pressure and ocean temperature in the great climatic pump-house of the equatorial Pacific—takes Davis to the historical moment of the second book: namely, the political economy of nineteenth-century famine. Tropical meteorology, it turns out, had its origins in the East India Company and its obsessive interest in the links between climate, peasant production and food output. The British Empire set up the rudiments of a global weather observation system in which, not surprisingly, the annual lottery of the monsoons took pride of place. At the time of the great El Niño events in the 1870s, the prevailing theory of what were already known to be interrelated planetary droughts turned on variable radiation. One of the founding fathers of neo-classical economics, Stanley Jevons, tried to naturalize what he called ‘commercial crises’ by linking trade cycles to sunspots. Political economy, as Davis dryly notes, was revealed to be a branch of solar physics. Follies of this kind were swept away by the efforts of a ballistics expert and world-class anal retentive, Gilbert Walker, who crunched unimaginable quantities of weather data and discovered the Southern Oscillation in the 1920s. After a hiatus, the search resumed in the 1960s when the hero of Davis’s story, UCLA climatologist Jacob Bjerknes, documented a variable catalytic exchange of energy between ocean and atmosphere that could be self-generated and self-sustaining. Subsequent work outlined the warm (El Niño) and cold (La Niña) phases of ENSO and, more critically, the teleconnectivity or ‘coupling’ between the tropical Pacific and the rest of the world climate system (which incidentally laid the groundwork for successful predictive models). All of this takes us to the El Niños of our own fin de siècle (1990–95, 1997–98) and their peculiar properties—not least of which is an apparent uncoupling of ENSO from the Indian monsoon. If you find it hard to imagine getting too exercised about thermocline-oscillations and inter-tropical convergences, read Davis: this is gripping stuff.