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Ukraine, Brexit, Arab spring have one source – prices, says sociologist

Following his 2022 book Price Wars, the sociologist and documentarian Rupert Russell speaks about how financial speculators have sown a new era of chaos.

By Tom Perkins

The Ukraine invasion, Brexit, the Arab spring, Donald Trump’s “children in cages” and other chaotic events throughout the last decade all sprang from one “deceptively simple” source – prices, according to sociologist and documentarian Rupert Russell.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton deregulated commodity markets under the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, allowing much greater Wall Street speculation on the price of necessities like oil, wheat, metals and coffee. In the ensuing years, the investment influx turned the commodity markets into “casinos” that yielded wild price spikes and collapses detached from physical supply and demand, according to Russell.

For his 2022 book Price Wars, Russell traveled the globe to visit regions hit by the price swings, and draws clear lines between his gonzo account of the chaos he witnessed, commodity market prices and the markets’ deregulation.

We spoke to Russell about how financial speculators have sown a new era of chaos.

In the book you talk about the butterfly effect, the idea that seemingly trivial, localized events can result in much larger consequences. One example was the 2010 Russian wildfires, which speculators thought would cause a wheat shortage (they did not). How did that help ignite a revolution in Tunisia, the Arab spring, war in Ukraine and other chaos throughout the last decade?

The Arab spring in 2010 was triggered by a food price spike essentially driven by a rally on wheat futures. What was interesting about the 2010 price spikes – and one before it, in 2008, which caused a global food crisis and riots in 48 countries – is both were events whereby small disturbances to the real world ended up producing enormous price spikes, which turned these local grievances into revolutions and civil war.

Although we called what happened in 2008 and 2010 “food crises”, they occurred in years that produced more food than any other before it. These were actually years of abundance, so the “food crises” actually were food price crises that were very much only creations of the commodity market.

So the chaos begins in financial markets and turns local disturbances into global events with surging commodity prices, because commodity prices have incredible power to disrupt society.

Why have we suddenly got these food riots, bread riots, soaring inflation, cost of living crises, refugee crises? Where’s all this coming from? It wasn’t there in the 80s and 90s, and my book is arguing there was this change in 2000 that essentially put an amplification engine into the commodity market.”

Read the full interview with Rupert Russell in The Guardian


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