Sunday, May 18, 2014

1417. On the Population Question: Malthus, Marx and Beyond

By Kamran Nayeri, May 18, 2014

1. Introduction 
It is estimated that the world population reached one billion in 1804. It took 123 years before it reached two billions in 1927.  By 1960 it reached 3 billions, only 33 years later.  Thereafter the world population reached 4 billions in 1974, 5 billions in 1987, 6 billions in 1999 and 7 billions in 2012.  It is projected that the world will have around 9 billions by 2050.  The massive increase in the population has been combined with a rise in the real per capita GDP.  The  ratio of real GDP in 1995 to 1950 was 3.1 in the “more developed areas” with 20% of the world population and 2.9 in the “less developed areas” with 80% of the world population. (“The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800”, Table 3, Richard E. Easterlin, Journal of Economic Perspective, volume 14, Number 1—Winter 2000—pp. 7–26). Some 20% of the world population, mostly in the industrial capitalist countries, consume 80% of the wold GDP.  Meanwhile, 2.8 billion people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. The U.N. reports that 825 million people are still undernourished; the average person in the industrial world took in 10 percent more calories daily in 1961 than the average person in the developing world consumes today  (The State of World Consumption, World Watch Institute, accessed May 13, 2014).

In a planet with finite resources, clearly there is a “population problem.” A large section of the environmentalist and ecologist movements and some ecological socialist believe this population problem was first analyzed incisively by Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus among the notable English classical political economists more than 200 years ago.  Among the same milieu it is common to mock Karl Marx’s critique of Malthus’ theory.   In what follows, I will argue that this common belief is false and it is at best based on inadequate knowledge of these writers.  In particular, I will focus on the claim of my ecological socialist fellow Saral Sarkar who believes “Malthus was right” and “Marx was wrong” on the population question.   As some readers know, this writing is part of my discussion of Saral’s recent writings regarding causes of the Great Recession.  In these (as well as earlier writings), Saral has displayed increasing hostility to Marx.  While critical appropriation of any thinker’s contributions is a welcome method of developing new ideas or extending earlier ones, hostility (being critical without due process) is an impediment to progress. Thus, it is alarming to me that Saral in his recent essay treats U.S. President Barack Obama and former Vice President Al Gore with more respect than he accords to Marx and in his letter he accuses Marx of being “biased” and “wrong” without any serious examination of the issues involved. 

In what follows, I will briefly take up Saral’s accusation that Marx was “biased’ in developing his labor theory of value and then in more detail discuss Saral’s preference for Malthus against Marx in discussing the population question. 

2. Was Marx biased in developing his labor theory of value?
In his letter, Saral writes: “I have shown [in Crises of Capitalism, 2010] with a quote from George Caffentzis that Marx was biased when he set up the labor theory of value.”  George Caffentzis is a professor of political philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, United States.  Here is the quotation from a chapter he wrote entitled “”Why Machines Cannot Create Value; or, Marx’s Theory of Machines,” for an edited collection called Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution (1997).

“Marx’s theory of machines was deployed in a political struggle; it was not the result of some supra historical, a-prioristic ratiocination. Theoretically, Marx could have taken different paths in the understanding of machines and still remained anti-capitalist. For example, he could have argued that machines create value but this value was the product of a general social and scientific labor which ought not be appropriated by the capitalist class.  Such as approach was indeed taken up by Veblen and others in the early twentieth century….
“Marx’s theoretical choice against the value creativity of machines was rooted in the complex political situation he and his faction of the working class movement of Western Europe faced…
“In the face of the ideological attack arising from the depth of the system [namely, the machines create value; workers are not so important], Marx needed a direct reply. It was to point out that…for all the thunder of its steam hammers, for all the intimating silence of its chemical plants, capital could not dispense with labor. Labor is not the only source of wealth, but it is the only source of value. Thus, capital was mortally tied to the working class, whatever the forces that it unleashed that were driving to a form of labor-less production. This was the political card that Marx played in the political game against the ideological suffocation of the machine. It…proved to be a useful one not only in the struggle of the 1860s. (cited in Sarkar, Crises of Capitalism, 2010, p. xxi). 

But above text does not substantiate Saral’s blunt statement that that “Marx was biased.” First, what Caffentiz says is that Marx’s labor theory of value was a response to ideological attacks by proponents of the capitalist system that “machines create value; workers are not important.”  Clearly in the extreme Cafentiz’s view can be interpreted as Marx was partisan in developing his labor theory of value.  There is a world of difference between being partisan and being biased.  However, there is nothing new or surprising about Marx being partisan. Everyone knows that Marx was a champion of the working class from early in his adult life. Does this make his labor theory of value biased and wrong? As I have already shown in Are Paradigms, Theories, Methods Value Neutral? nobody who thinks and acts socially is value neutral.  So, why mock Marx? 

Second, as Caffentiz correctly says (and Saral somehow misses), Marx’s labor theory of value originated in earlier theories developed by the classical political economists from John Locke to Adam Smith and Ricardo.  So, Marx’s labor theory of value was not in Caffentiz own words “some supra historical, a-prioristic ratiocination” creation.  That is, it was not arbitrary and therefore could not be “biased.” Marx merely went further and deeper that even Ricardo ever did as we know from my discussion of commodity and money in Marx or Club of Rome.  Marx’s labor theory of value is about human alienation in the capitalist society that makes the rule of capital and exploitation of labor possible. It is the application of his historical materialist method for the understanding the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. In this, Marx has no parallel and anyone interested to transcending the capitalist civilization would need to read and understand Marx.  

Third, Caffentzis's statement that Marx did not think that machines contribute value to the product is based on a misunderstanding of his theory.  In Marx’s theory, capital that include machinery is “dead labor.”  “Dead labor” is value created by workers in earlier phases of production.  Thus, in Chapter 10 of volume one of Capital, “The Working Day,” Marx writes: 
“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.”
Thus, Marx does account for value contributed by “machines” as labor expanded in earlier phases of production. The idea that machines can create value independent of human beings is an alienated (bourgeois) notion.  It took root in the neoclassical marginal productivity theory. In Economics, Socialism and Ecology: An Outline, Part 1 I summarized it as follows:
“Soon, John Bates Clark (American) and Phillip Henry Wicksteed (Swedish) developed the marginal productivity theory as the neoclassical theory of income distribution according to which wages, profit and rent were paid according to the contribution of last unit of their input.  Thus, wages due to workers are paid to them no less and no more than their contribution.  The same applied to profits and rents. Thus, economic justice was served in the capitalist market economy.”
Thus, neoclassical theory cut loose from the ideologically dangerous labor theory of value, not of Marx but also of classical political economy. The fact that neoclassical theory is the dominant economic doctrine of our time indicates that the notion that capital in general and machines in particular create value is in fact part of the mainstream ideology that serves the interest of the ruling class.  

Given the ahistorical nature of the neoclassical theory, it is fair to imagine a future world where robots make everything but there are no humans.  The question is: do they create value?  Likewise, imagine a society where robots make every thing (perhaps a strange view of a socialist society).  Is there value being created by the robots?  From Marx’s perspective, the answer would clearly be “no.”  Value is a social relation particular to the capitalist mode of production. It is obviously Caffentzis's or Saral’s choice to define value different from the way Marx used the term. Then they would have to develop an entire theory of capitalism that is different from Marx’s.  We do not know what that theory would be. But to denounce Marx for not defining value in the way neoclassical theory or Veblen defined it is simply not scholarship.  

3. Was Marx wrong about Malthus?
Advising me in his letter not to characterize neoclassical economics as bourgeois, Saral writes: “There are many bourgeois theorists who have thought and worked honestly. Bourgeois Malthus was right, while Marxist Marx was wrong.”  What is this about?  What was “Marxist” Marx wrong about and bourgeois Malthus who “thought and worked honestly” correct about?  I along with other readers would have no clue.  

So, I had to turn to Saral’s Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism for a clue. 

In his “Introduction,” Saral initiates a discussion about paradigm shift to motivate limits to growth as an alternative and superior paradigm to “Marxism.”  Never mind that lumping all kinds of theories and theorists and historical experience of parties and states that have called themselves “Marxism” is mistake as I briefly discuss in the first endnote below.  Also, never mind that limits to growth and Marx’s theory operate on entirely different planes: the first is about limits of planetary systems supporting human societies and the other is about the historical dynamics of class societies and potential for human emancipation.  They are not contradictory and in my reading of them they can be made complementary in search for a solution to the crisis of the bourgeois culture and society.  Saral then uses a 1979 article of Paul Sweezy’s entitled “A Crisis in Marxian Theory” to make a case for the crisis of “Marxist paradigm" and the superiority of the “limits to growth paradigm.”  

It is in this context that Saral introduces Malthus.  He writes:
“Marx and Engels were not aware of the limits to growth. Although Malthus had dealt in 18th century with the population problem in relation to the growth of food production—an important aspect of limits-to-growth paradigm—Marx and Engels and all their disciples vehemently rejected his theory.” (Sarkar, 1999, p. 18)
Therefore, for Saral Malthus is an early proponent of limits to growth whereas Marx and Engels who actually began their active intellectual and political life after Malthus’ death in 1834 were opponents of Malthus’ theory of population, hence the early limits to growth thinking.  

But was Malthus’s theory of population an early formulation of natural limits to growth? There were others with similar ideas that predated Malthus.  In what sense Malthus’ theory of population is unique or superior to his predecessors? Why these ideas emerged over 200 years ago?  Was there a “population problem” in England, Western Europe or the world? 

Saral does not deal with any of these key questions. His discussion of Malthus’ population theory appears in a short section entitled “Malthus: the Difference Between Problem and Policy” on pages 130-31.  He frames the discussion as follows:
“We must begin with Malthus. We must differentiate between problem and policy. Population policy can be debated, formulated, and accepted or rejected. But the population problem is an objective state of affairs, which cannot be conjured away.”  (ibid., p. 130)
He continues:
“The indignation against Malthus is justified. According to him, the poor are themselves to be blamed for their poverty.  But the question is whether for this reason, Malthus’ presentation of the problem is also wrong.” (ibid.)
Strangely enough Saral leave his own question unanswered.  Of course, indignation against Malthus is justified. All his life he stood against all reforms to alleviate the horrendous condition of the British working class, especially the poor.  He was a staunch representative of the most reactionary section of the English propertied classes.  But how about Malthus’ presentation of the problem?  Did England of 200 years ago have a population problem that threatened “the delicate ecological balance” (in Saral’s own words) or was there a shortage of available food supply to feed everyone?  Saral does not take up these self-evident questions. Instead, he fast forwards to the post-World War II period to discuss a few studies about population pressure on food supply.  Nothing about what Malthus actually said and its context or what Marx’s criticism of Malthus was.

For answer to these question we need to go to sources outside of Saral’s book.  And there is a large literature on this question. For this rejoined it suffice to look at a few of them.  

4. The historical context of Malthus’ theories
Theories of society must be placed in their historical context. The historical fact is that there was no “population problem” in England or Western Europe or the world that anyone argued will undermine “the delicate ecological balance” and there was no argument that there was not enough food to feed everyone.  During Malthus’ own life agricultural revolution was underway from 1750 to 1850 when growth of food production exceeded population growth and Britain reached 5.5 million people for the first time.  Also, the development of the field of ecology was some decades in the future. 

However, the English working class was living at subsistence in 1750 and in the second half of the eighteenth century as the industrialization got underway  “…their standard of living (measured in terms of the purchasing power of wages) deteriorated…” (E. K. Hunt, History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective, 1979, p. 57).   “…[T]here is no doubt that the standard of living of the poor fell precipitously in relation to the standards of the middle and upper classes” throughout the industrial revolution.  Workers were uprooted from their traditional means of living in handicrafts and agriculture and forced to migrate to cities. Community relations were being ruptured and replaced with market relations and the cash nexus. Monotonous  factory system of production dehumanized workers making them mere extension of machines. “Children were bound to factories by indentures of apprenticeship for seven years, or until they were 21 years old.” (ibid., p. 59). They “endured the cruelest servitude.” (ibid.).  They were isolated and forced to work 14 to 18 hours a day or until they dropped from complete exhaustion. There were many factory “accidents” and many children were dismembered.  “Women were mistreated almost a severely.” (Ibid.).  Conditions in the cities were terrible. 

This led to factory revolts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as bands of workers smashed machines in factories. Theses revolts that became known as the Luddie revolts, ended in 1813 when large number of workers were hanged or deported for their protests. Social riots occurred in 1811-13, 1815—17, 1819, 1826, 1929-35, 1834-1842, 1843-1844, 1846-1848.  As labor organizations spread in reaction to these conditions in the 1790s, the Combination Act of 1799 was adopted which “…outlawed any combination of workers whose purpose was to obtain higher wages, shorter hours, or the introduction of any regulation constraining the free action of their employers..”  (ibid. p. 61). The proponents of laissez-faire capitalism campaigned for the abolition of the Speenhamland system of poor relief that had come into existence due to the Christian paternalist ethics. 

This is the context in which Robert Malthus wrote his many books, pamphlets, and essays.  As E. K. Hunt writes:
“Malthus was an outspoke champion of the wealthy, and his theory of population provided the framework within which he defended them.  In 1798 he published An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers , generally referred to as the first Essay on the Principle of Population. In 1803, he published a revised edition in which the revisions were so extensive that it was, in reality, a new book.  This book is generally referred to as the second Essay on the Principle of Population.  He later published A Summary of the Principles of Population.” (ibid., p. 63)  

5. Malthus’ early theory of population
The ecological socialist John Bellamy Foster wrote an essay in 1998 (a year before Saral’s Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism was published) entitled  Malthus’ Essay on Population at Age 200: A Marxist View.  Foster’s essay is remarkable for his debunking a number of myths about Malthus’s population theory.  

Much of what goes as Malthus’ theory of population was actually developed by earlier writers.  Specifically Malthus’ first Essay on the Principle of Population was his attempt to intervene in a debate between Robert Wallace, an Edinburg minister, and William Godwin and Marquis de Condorcet.  In 1761, Wallace published Various Prospects for Mankind, Nature, and Providence. He argued that 
“…human population if unchecked tended to increase exponentially, doubling every few decades, made a case in Various Prospects that while the creation of a ‘perfect government,’ organized on an egalitarian basis was conceivable, it would be at best temporary, since under these circumstances ‘mankind, would increase so prodigiously that the earth would be left overstocked and become unable to support its inhabitants.’ Eventually, there would come a time ‘when our globe, by the most diligent culture, could not produce what was sufficient to nourish its numerous inhabitants.’ Wallace went on to suggest that it would be preferable if the human vices, by reducing population pressures, should prevent the emergence of a government not compatible with the ‘circumstances of Mankind upon the Earth.’” (Foster, 1998). 
In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness (1793), William Godwin challenged Wallace’s thesis on the basis of his Enlightenment utopia beliefs. As Foster explains:
“In answer to Wallace, who had claimed that excessive population would result eventually from any perfect government, thus undermining its existence, Godwin contended that human population ‘will perhaps never be found in the ordinary course of affairs, greatly to increase, beyond the facility of subsistence.’ Population tended to be regulated in human society in accordance with conditions of wealth and wages. ‘It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.’ For Godwin there were ‘various methods, by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients, and, at this day, in China; by the art of procuring abortion, as it is said to subsist in the island of Ceylon…or lastly, by a systematical abstinence such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex.’ But even without such extreme practices and institutions, “the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community,” he insisted, “will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.’” (ibid).
In his first Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus intervened in this debate. 
“Malthus set out to overturn Godwin’s argument by changing the terrain of debate; rather than contending, like Wallace before him, that a ‘perfect government’ would eventually be undermined by the overstocking of the earth with human inhabitants, Malthus insisted that there was a constant tendency toward equilibrium between population and food supply. Nevertheless, population tended naturally when unchecked to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16), while food supply increased at best at an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Under these circumstances attention needed to be given to the checks that ensured that population stayed in equilibrium (apart from minor fluctuations) with the limited means of subsistence. These checks, Malthus argued, were all reducible to vice and misery, taking such forms as promiscuity before marriage, which limited fecundity (a common assumption in Malthus’ time), sickness, plagues, and—ultimately, if all other checks fell short, the dreaded scourge of famine. Since such misery and vice was necessary at all times to keep population in line with subsistence any future improvement of society, as envisioned by thinkers like Godwin and Condorcet, he contended, was impossible.”(ibid.) 
Thus, Malthus’ population theory is not what Saral has in mind.  It was Wallace not Malthus who argued the problem of population will be coming in some distant future to undermine “perfect government.” For Malthus, the problem was ever present since the dawn of history.  Here is how Foster describes it:
“Malthus himself did not use the term ‘overpopulation’ in advancing his argument—though it was used from the outset by his critics. Natural checks on population were so effective, in Malthus’ late-eighteenth-century perspective, that overpopulation, in the sense of the eventual overstocking of the globe with human inhabitants, was not the thing to be feared. The problem of an ‘overcharged population’ existed not at ‘a great distance’ (as Godwin had said), but rather was always operative, even at a time when most of the earth was uncultivated. In response to Condorcet he wrote ‘M. Condorcet thinks that it [the possibility of a period arising when the world's population has reached the limits of its subsistence] cannot .. be applicable but at an era extremely distant. If the proportion between the natural increase of population and food which I have given be in any degree near the truth, it will appear, on the contrary, that the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence [in later editions this was changed to ‘easy means of subsistence’…] has arrived, and that this necessary oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind.’ In the 1803 edition of his work on population he wrote, ‘Other persons, besides Mr. Godwin, have imagined that I looked to certain periods in the future when population would exceed the means of subsistence in a much greater degree than at present, and that the evils arising from the principle of population were rather in contemplation than in existence; but this is a total misconception of the argument.’” (ibid. my emphases)
Marx had pointed out that the only novel idea in Malthus’ population theory was his proposition that food grows according to an arithmetic ratio.  But as Foster suggests Malthus had no basis for this proposition.  He merely claimed that anyone familiar with the state of agriculture would know it.  It is true that in pre-Darwinian understanding of the natural world it was assumed that animals and plant had little room for “improvement.”  It is also true that the Classical Political Economy’s so-called law of diminishing return to land was later used to support Malthus’ proposition on arithmetic ratio in growth of food.  But Malthus himself was not aware of such “law” and there is no mention of it in his books.  As I noted earlier, during Malthus’ own life Britain experienced it agricultural revolution when growth of food production exceeded population growth.  Still, as Foster summarize it: “For Malthus, the properties of the soil were not subject to historical change, but were simply ‘gifts of nature to man’ and, as Ricardo said, ‘indestructible.’”  He concludes: “All of this meant that the First Essay [where Malthus rejected the possibility of moral constraint for birth control] was a failure in that the argument was clearly insupportable.” (ibid.)
6. Malthus’ second Essay on the Principle of Population
In Malthus’ second Essay on the Principle of Population, he admitted the possibility of moral restraint to control human population but only for the upper classes. Malthus’ focus shifted from the question of “the future improvement of society” or Godwin and Condorcet to attacking the English Poor laws. This is reflected in the title: An Essay of the Principle of Population; or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it Occasions.” Its basic thesis is to use his revised population theory to argue that the poor are not entitled to any social support. “We cannot, in the nature of things,” Malthus wrote, “assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children.” Foster cites Marx’s observation in 1844 that the essence of Malthus’ work was that “charity…itself fostered social evils.” The very poverty that “formerly was attributed to a deficiency of charity was now ascribed to the superabundance of charity.” Thus, Malthus wrote:
“With regard to illegitimate children, after the proper notice has been given, they should on no account whatever be allowed to have any claim to parish allowance…. The infant is, comparatively speaking, of no value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place.” (quoted in Foster 1998).  In the same callous vein he wrote:
“A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour…. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity…. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.” (ibid.)
Again Marx’s observation about Malthus is quite apt. As Foster writes: 
“Marx in Capital… [pointed] out that discussions of population in Britain had come to be dominated by Protestant parsons or ‘reverend scribblers,’ such as Robert Wallace, Joseph Townsend, Thomas Chalmers and Malthus himself. It was the recognized task of such ‘parson naturalists’ in the days before Darwin to provide natural law justifications for the established order. Malthus, as Marx observed, was lauded by an English oligarchy frightened by the revolutionary stirrings on the Continent, for his role as ‘the great destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity.’” (my emphasis) 
“The revolutionary stirring on the Continent” was the French revolution of 1789-99.  
7. Marx’s and Engels’ criticism of Malthus
As Martha E. Gimenez has argued in “The Population Issue: Marx vs. Malthus” (Den Ny Verden, Journal of the Institute for Development Research, Copenhagen, Denmark, December 1973), Marx’s and Engels’ criticism of Malthus’ theory of population fall into two categories.  First, they argued that Malthus’ theory reified the existing problem of poverty in England.  Like the problem of fetishism discussed I discussed in Karl Marx or Club of Rome where social relations are cast as market relations, reification casts social issues as natural phenomenon. Thus, Malthus and his co-thinkers attributed poverty of the English working class to their numbers and its potential to multiply.  Thus, they refused to see that the plight of the English working class was due to capitalist industrialization. A social problem was cast as a natural phenomenon. As Marx writes in Section 4 of Chapter of 1 of the first volume of Capital, entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”: 
“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him…
“The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms.” 
Second, for Marx and Engels development of human history is subject to historical laws influenced by its dominant modes of production. The size and rate of growth of human population is subject to this historical process of development. There is no general theory of human population good for all times.  Thus, Engels wrote to Albert Lange on March 29, 1865 about Malthus’ theory:
“The so-called ‘economic laws’ are not eternal laws of nature but historical laws that appear and disappear, and the code of modern political economy, insofar as the economists have drawn it up correctly and objectively, is for us merely a summary of the laws and conditions in which modern bourgeois society can exist, in a word: its conditions of production and exchange expressed and summed up abstractly. For us, therefore, none of these laws, insofar as it is an expression of purely bourgeois relations, is older than modern bourgeois society; those which have been more or less valid for all previous history, are thus only an expression of such relations as are common to all forms of society based upon class rule and class exploitation. Amongst the former we may count the so-called Ricardian law, which is valid neither for serfdom nor for the slavery of antiquity; amongst the latter, whatever part of the so-called Malthusian theory can be sustained.” 
In his discussion of “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” (Chapter 25, Capital, volume 1), Marx discusses formation of the “relative surplus population” or the “reserved army of the working class”, that is the poverty stricken section of the working class, through the dynamics of capitalist accumulation.  I just quote a segment of it but the entire section is worth contemplating. 
“The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production; and in fact every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.
“But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost.” (my emphasis) 
Thus, Marx and Engels provided an alternative way to think about the problem of working class poverty than Malthus and naturally arrived at different policy prescription.  They defended the working class and the poor against the onslaught of capitalist ruling classes while Malthus did all he could to aid that onslaught.  
In Marx's and Engels' view, the “population problem” will be addressed in socialism: As Engels wrote to Lange in the letter cited above: 
“The parson Malthus filched this theory, like all his other ideas, directly from his predecessors; the only part of it which is truly his is the purely arbitrary application of the two progressions. The theory itself has long since been reduced by the economists in England to rational dimensions; the population exerts pressure on the means — not of subsistence, but of employment; mankind could multiply more rapidly than modern bourgeois society can stand. For us yet another reason to proclaim this bourgeois society to be a barrier to development which must fall.” 
8. Ecological socialism and the population problem: Malthus, Marx and beyond
It is now time to step back and ask why Saral or a large section of the environmental and ecological movements embrace Malthus but take a hostile attitude towards Marx.  Malthus did not offer a viable theory of human population dynamics. His population theory was hardly original and was used to justify the horrendous condition of the English working class and its poorest sections.  

Malthus’ novelty in proclaiming that food production grows arithmetically (while, as Wallace had said, population grows geometrically) was not based on any observation or fact. It was simply claimed.  Only later the political economist James Anderson who was a fierce opponent of Malthus proposed the “law of diminishing returns to land.” Even so, as Marx argued diminishing returns to land is subject to human intervention through technological change. History has proved that Marx not Malthus was correct; between 1820 and 2000 the world’s population grew sixfold and economic output multiplied by more than 50 (Eduardo Porter, “Old Forecast of Famine May Yet Come True,” The New York Times, April 2, 2014).  Today’s proponents of Malthus are hard pressed to argue that world hunger and occasional famine are due to lack of adequate supply of food.  It is easy to see that capitalist control over production of food for profit and lack of adequate employment to generate income for the poor are the sources of these problems. Moreover, the empirically-based theory of demographic transition proposed by the American demographer Warren Thompson in 1929 shows that in industrialized societies birth rates and death rates fall and more recent experience suggests that population of more developed capitalist countries may even contract.  Again, these findings are entirely against Malthus’ predications and more consistent with Marx’s view that population is not an independent factor in socioeconomic development.  Culture can trump nature.

Finally, it was Marx not Malthus who begin to pay attention to the ecology of the soil and its degradation in capitalist agriculture. It was Marx not Malthus who most eloquently argued that growth for the sake of growth is the basic nature of the capitalist system and the basis of it downfall (see, Marx or Club of Rome).  It was Marx not Malthus who had a vision of a socialist future based on free association of direct producers. Such association presupposes a democratically run planed economy and it is implicit in any such vision that it also must include population planing through empowering women.  

Why would any ecological socialist claim Malthus, not Marx, as his/her lineage in figuring out our way to a communal society that could live in harmony with the rest of nature?

However, over a century after Marx we need to look beyond.  Any definition of ecology includes the size and rate of growth of population of species and how their interactions affect ecological system’s health.  That is one reason I opened this discussion by noting the exponential growth of human population since 1800.  In 2012 the average world population density per square kilometer of land was 52 persons (The World Bank, accessed May 13, 2014) compared to 6.7 persons in 1800.  Accordingly, humans have been consuming ever larger part of the Earth’s life-sustaining resources.  For example, in a prominent 1986 study of the use of the energy captured in the food chain (Net Primary Productivity) p. Vitousek, A. Ehrlich, and P.  Matson estimated that humans directly consumed 40% of NPP (“Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis,” BioScience, vol. 277, pp. 494-499, 1986).  The consumption of the remaining 60% of NPP was also influenced by humans, for example, by farm animals. The same is true as expanding human population deprive wildlife of other life-sustaining factors, such as habitat and water.  For example, development of the Central Valley agribusiness in California that provides half of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the United States was made possible by expanding industrial farming into 95% of wetlands that migratory birds used resulting in the decline of their population.  Thus, the sixth great extinction (The Anthropocene) is driven in part by the sheer size and rate of growth of human population globally and in various regions of the planet. 

However, the debate about human population size and growth between the “Marxists” and environmentalist has been cast as if it is a choice between Marx or Malthus.  The environmentalists have focused attention on the “carrying capacity” and natural limits to growth while the”Marxists” have argued that hunger and occasional famine are due to the capitalist nature of the socioeconomic system. A socialist distribution system, they claim, will ensure adequate food for all.  

However, this is a false debate. First, today’s environmentalists are not advancing Malthusian arguments (even when they think they are as Saral does).  However, as they are correctly concerned with ecological wellbeing of the planet they tend to naturalize the population question like Malthus did by refusing to frame it in its capitalist economic context and its overriding anthropocentric culture.  The “Marxists” have been correct to point out the capitalist context of the population question.  However, they often refuse to acknowledge that there are too many people from an ecological point of view (for a recent demonstration of this denial see Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, New York: Haymarket Books, 2011). Similarly, the “Marxists” often deny the anthropocentric context of the present-day crisis.  Thus, in the sizable literature of “how many people can the Earth support” there is hardly any discussion of how many people are too many from the perspective of maintaining the integrity of the web of life on Earth (for an exception, see, Washington, Haydn. Human Dependence on Nature: How to Help Solve the Environmental Crisis.  Abingdon, Canada and New York: Routledge, 2013)

This is the perspective that I believe is consistent with ecological socialism; the perspective that benefits from Marx’s criticism of Malthus’ naturalization of the population question yet reframes it in an ecocentric worldview where the size and rate of growth of our species would be controlled democratically through empowerment of women in a way to maintain biodiversity of the planet and ensure harmony with the rest of nature.  Let us call this perspective Deep Ecology Socialism that benefits from the wisdom of the Eight Points Platform proposed by Arnes Naess and George Sessions for consideration of the Deep Ecology movement in 1986.  I quote the first four of these principles: 
“1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes. 
“2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves. 
“3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
"4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.”
In his letter, Saral discounts the need for such change of paradigm from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. He does so by equating it with a romantic (that is, impossible) return to the way of life of hunter-gatherers. 
While it is true that for millions of years hunter-gatherers held ecocentric world-views, it does not follow that to hold an ecocentric worldview one has to be a hunter-gatherer.  Today's Deep Ecology movement and the Darwinian evolutionary theory are living proof of that.  
Further, ecocentrism is not inconsistent with either Marx’s criticism of the capitalist society or the natural limits to growth perspective.   

Finally, ecocentrism is the only paradigm that allows for a true and lasting solution to the current crisis of society and nature.   In his letter, Saral takes up veganism (or vegetarianism) as an example of “ethical commandments” issued from such ecocentric perspective.  In the next segment, I will demonstrate why anyone concerned with the planetary crisis should adopt a vegan diet as a way to save the world. 

1. It is helpful to set aside a persistent slight of Saral’s pen if not an outright error.  Marx bears no responsibility for whatever has come to pass as Marxism after his death.  Even in his own life time, Marx’s views were distorted by his supposed followers.  For example, in the discussion of the program of the French Parti Ouvrier in 1880, Marx accused Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue of “revolutionary phrase mongering” and declare “ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”) (see, Engels’ letter to Eduard Bernstein, November 2-3, 1882, in Marx and Engels Works Vol. 46. p.353).  Secondly, followers of Marx have branched out in so many directions that it is impossible to argue who is really representing the “real Marx.” So, Saral’s habit of trashing this or that “Marxist” group usually based on citing a personal conversations or citing one “Marxist” work and implying that they somehow represented Karl Marx’s ideas is methodologically and ethically wrong.  He also habitually uses this or that quotation from Marx taken from secondary literature to build up an argument against Marx.  This method is not acceptable in scholarly work.  
2.  In fact, there is a whole school of “Marxist economists” who decided Marx’s labor theory of value was no longer valid in the “new phase” of capitalist development.  This is the monopoly capital school made famous by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy (Monopoly Capital, with Paul Baran, 1966. Saral cites Sweezy as a Marxist authority to challenge the Marxian paradigm in favor of the natural limits to growth paradigm in the same preface to his The Crises of Capitalism, 2010) . This theory is a synthesis of Marx and Veblen. The foundation for their work was laid by Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1910) that denied the operation of the law of value. He was followed by others who wrote about imperialism from Bukharin and Lenin to Sweezy and Baran. 

To be continued...

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Climate and Capitalism said...


It is good to see that you are distancing yourself from Saral Sarkar, whose anti-Marxist and pro-Malthusian views have been sadly evident for many years.

However, in doing so you have misrepresented our book, Too Many People?, saying that we deny the ecological impact of population growth.

Our book was not a general discussion of population and the environment. Simon Butler and I focused specifically on the claim made by many greens that population growth is the primary cause of the global environmental crisis, and that reducing birth rates is the only way to solve the crisis. We argued that such populationism misdirects the efforts of environmentalists away from the real causes and solutions.

Contrary to your assertion, we explicitly and repeatedly rejected the view that population is not a matter of concern. For example, in chapter 15, we write:

“Some writers, on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, have tried to refute populationism by denying that population growth poses any social, economic, or ecological problems. Such arguments ignore the fact that human beings require sustenance to live, and that unlike other animals, we don't just find our means of life, we use the earth's resources to make them.

“If nothing else changes, more food must be produced to feed more people, and that will use resources. That's a fundamental fact of material existence, one that no society can possibly escape.

“The claim made by right-wingers such as Julian Simon and Jacqueline Kasun, that a growing population poses no problems because the "free market" will magically provide whatever is needed, is refuted by the reality of twenty-first century capitalism, which produces enough food to feed everyone, but starves the billions who can't afford to buy it.

“It is also obvious that the global hyper-growth of cities is not ecologically sustainable. Over 160 years ago, Marx and Engels called for "the abolition of the antagonism between town and country," and the need for that is even more obvious today, when more than a billion people have been forced off the land into the mega-slums of the South. There are now 23 cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, and there will likely be 36 by 2015.

“Society must confront and resolve the gross imbalance that exists between resources and human needs, including the absurd distribution of population that crowds millions into cities while converting productive farmland into biofuel plantations.”

Further on, we write: “Reducing population will not solve ecological problems, but replacing the system can make it possible to reduce population pressure where it does exist.” That statement directly contradicts the view that your article attributes to us.

You may not agree with our book: that’s your right. But I hope that in future you will at least accurately represent what it says.

Ian Angus, editor
Climate & Capitalism

Kamran Nayeri said...

Ian Angus, co-author of “Too Many People?” feels that I have misrepresented his book. If that were true, I would have been glad to offer my apology and issue a correction.

However, I think Angus has misunderstood my criticism for which a reference to his book is given. I urge him and the reader to reread the two paragraphs preceding the reference to “Too Many People?” In that section I write that “‘Marxists’ often refuse to acknowledge that there are too many people from an ecological point of view” I then cite as a recent example “Too Many People?” Similarly, I write“‘Marxists’ often deny the anthropocentric context of the present-day crisis.” That is also true of “Too Many People?”

In his comment, Angus claims that “[c]ontrary to your assertion, we explicitly and repeatedly rejected the view that population is not a matter of concern.” But how concerned are Angus and Butler with the empirical fact of exponential population growth? What is their answer to the rhetorical question they pose in the title? The reader will be hard pressed to find out! In a chapter entitled "Is the World Full?" their conclusion is that we don’t know! They add that when we find out "humanity may then decide to consciously limit its numbers.” That is the extent of their concern with the size and rate of growth of population.

Any wildlife ecologist concerned with species extinction will offer a radically different answer: from the perspective of tens of thousands of species, the world has been full with human beings at war with them for a really long time. And not all wars against nature are traceable to the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. (see, for example, my "Gardening, Ground Squirrels and Crisis of Civilization”). The fact is that factors causing the (current) sixth mass extinction include the workings of the fossil fuel-powered industrialized capitalist economy, dizzying advance of scientific and technological knowledge and exponential growth of human population. None of these factors are secondary! It is also a fact that humans war against nature began with the Agricultural Revolution not the Industrial Revolution. Underpinning it all was a transformation from the hunter-gatherer ecocentric world-views to anthropocentric (human supremacist) culture that persist and in fact magnified many times over in capitalist civilization.

Thus, I think I am on fairly solid ground to argue that “Too Many People?” failed to break out of a nineteenth century vision that Marx provided us. As important as Marx’s and Engels’s writings are in understating and refuting Malthusian anti-working class theory and policy, they are insufficient for dealing with the twentieth first century problems. We need to go beyond them if we are to be true to the spirit of criticizing all that exist. “Too Many People?” does not.