Marx wrote about capital's destruction of the old social organizations of the societies it enters into, either originally or by force, that "the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire". Mike Davis demonstrates that this is, indeed, the case, and not just for Western Europe either. Focusing on the case examples of Brazil, India and China, Davis shows irrefutably how weather fluctuations, known as El Ninġ phenomena, combined with free traderism, colonialism and capitalist organization to create a series of harvest failures, famines, epidemics and regressions compared to which the Biblical plagues are child's play.
The first part of the book describes the various mass famines that occurred in northeastern Brazil, central and northern India, and central and northern China in the period of the apogee of colonialism, namely roughly 1870-1910. This matter is certainly not for the light of heart: the scale of the famines is such that they far exceed anything ever experienced under Mao or Stalin combined, and the indifference and repression of the the British and other colonialist elites in the face of so much suffering is staggering, evoking parallels with nazism. Of course Mike Davis' usual ill-chosen title attempts to make precisely this comparison, which rather weakens instead of reinforcing the effect of his book, but the facts speak for themselves regardless. Nothing can describe the effect it must have had on the Indian population to be forced to pay for British wars in Afghanistan and South Africa as well as a tremendously grand Jubilee for Queen Victoria, while in the meantime tens of millions of peasants were dying, in some district leading to reductions in population of almost two-thirds. Such is the effect of Whiggish history still that these facts are almost not known at all, and are never taught in high school history books. But everywhere capitalism goes, it leaves behind such corpses.
The second part of the book is a rather technical discussion of weather patterns, especially the oscillation known as ENSO, leading to the El Niño phenomena. Davis also delves into the scientific discussions of these phenomena both during the period of capitalist famines and in contemporary meteorology. This part of the book is furnished with strong statistical data, which will primarily be of interest to people engaged in studying weather patterns, as well as agriculturists because of the importance of these patterns for monsoons etc.
The third and final part of the book picks up where the first one left off, and goes into more detail about the social organizations of Brazil, India and China both before the colonialist period and during it. Davis produces interesting evidence to the account that not only was the average standard of living for the majority of the people quite higher in India and China than in Europe during the 18th Century, their degree of productivity in terms of manufacturing was higher as well. This to directly contradict the many Whiggish histories, like Landes and others, who posit the societies of India and China as stagnant and unproductive from the start. Instead, Mike Davis hypothesizes that the real reason for the sudden collapse in effectivity and productivity of India and China is the military involvement of (mainly) the British in these regions. Subjugating India entirely to a system of hyper-exploitation for the sole benefit of paying for the huge British military and for the interests of the factory manufacturers and traders in Manchester and London (whose direct influence over Indian Raj policy is shockingly large); and in China forcing the government into such large-scale wars and interventions against the British as to make the Qing dynasty go entirely bankrupt and unable to pay for the vast infrastructure and reserve funds, as well as destroying the most effective administation the world had ever seen, the Imperial magistrature system, from the inside via opium trade corruption. Davis makes plausible, if not quite proven, therefore that the downfall of India and China as powers in the 19th Century was exogenous rather than endogenous to these societies.
But what is most important about this book is the enormity of what it describes: the incredibly large-scale death of the subjugated and exploited peoples of what would later form the 'Third' or developing world. By even modest estimates the various preventable famines in China during 1850-1900 alone must have killed some 30-60 million people, and in India probably again anywhere between 30 and 85 million. Then if we add to that the deaths in Brazil (not exploited by foreign powers this time, but by their own capitalist plutocracy), of various African nations, as well as the costs of rebellion and civil war caused by the social disintegration resulting from invasion and colonialism, we get quite a pretty picture: indeed the 20th Century can hardly be considered bloodier than the 19th was. And this is called, by historians, the "Belle Époque"! One wonders if those who write so-called "Black Books of Communism" etc. are even aware of the lethality of capital.