Malthus Revisited


Mark Jones' raising of the overpopulation question leads us into a discussion of the Marxist critique of Malthus. Once again I will refer to Michael Perelman's book "Marx's Crises Theory: Scarcity, Labor and Finance", which contained the eye-opening first chapter on Marx's understanding of India. I posted it last week to show that Marx's understanding of the role of English colonialism in India in 1853 was limited by both inadequate knowledge and incomplete theorization of Capital itself.

Very conveniently for our purposes, chapter two of Michael's book is on "Marx, Malthus, and the Concept of Natural Resource Scarcity".

Marx avoided a direct confrontation with Malthusianism itself. The reason for this was German socialists, under Lasalle's initiative, had incorporated Malthus's doctrines into their program through their notion of the "Iron Law of Wages." Marx decided that he had enough on his table in explaining the labor theory of value without taking Malthus head-on, besides wanting to avoid factional warfare with the German party.

This has caused a serious misinterpretation of Marx's views today, because it would lead to the conclusion that Marx did not think that the question of natural resources and their scarcity had any importance. It would fortify the arguments of "deep ecologists" and "green anarchists" who view Marx and Engels as treating nature as nothing but a huge faucet and drain. Ore, water, crops, etc. come out of the faucet in unlimited supply; labor turns them into commodities; and the waste products go down the drain. This interpretation does not do justice to Marx.

Marx treats the question of overpopulation itself as an function of capital's need to deploy labor in the social relations surrounding production. A "relative surplus of population" or "industrial reserve army" comes into existence when traditional means of production are abolished, such as village-based, communal agriculture. As Perelman comments:

"The apparent 'overpopulation' that then arises is relative, not to natural conditions or food supply, but to the needs of capital accumulation; that is, capital requires a reserve army of labor power on which it can draw quickly and easily, one that holds the pretensions of the working class in check. Scarcity in this context is scarcity of employment owing to the concentration of the means of production under the control of a small class of capitalists operating according to the logic of profit and competition." (Perelman, p. 31)

Besides providing a theoretical approach to the question, Marx also dealt with the historical example of Ireland, which Malthusians cited as a classic example of overpopulation. Marx took another tack entirely. He argued that the massive exodus of people following the potato famine did not improve the standard of living in Ireland. It mirrored a decline that began before 1846, the year of the famine. The depopulation of Ireland was engineered by an English and Irish landlord class that transformed the island from a wheat-producing nation, protected from foreign competition by the corn laws, into a huge pasture for wool-producing sheep.

Scarcity of natural resources, like population, could not be understood on its own terms. It arises as a consequence of historically determined social relations. His understanding of scarcity comes into the sharpest focus when discussing agriculture.

At first Marx believed that agriculture's problems were the heritage of pre-capitalist formations. The bourgeois revolution would fix everything. In the Communist Manifesto, he includes the "application of chemistry to industry and agriculture" as among the greatest accomplishments of capitalism. In a letter to Engels from this period, Marx states that capitalist agriculture breakthroughs "would put an end to Malthus' theory of the deterioration not only of the 'hands' [i.e., people] but also of the land."

The more he studied agriculture under capitalism, the more pessimistic Marx became of these prospects. This change occurred between 1861 and 1863 when he was writing "Theories of Surplus Value," a work which while still promoting the view that capitalist agriculture might even progress at a faster rate than industry, contains a new "greenish" view that is less optimistic:

"The moral history...concerning that the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labor or the control of associated producers."

Marx came to these views not because he became convinced of an early version of the Gaia principle, but because he had been studying agronomy and organic chemistry in some detail. He believed that agricultural chemistry was more important than all of the economists "put together." His agricultural research led him to the conclusion in 1868 that capitalist agriculture "leaves deserts behind it." His section on "Large Scale Industry and Agriculture" in volume one of Capital is virtually a red-green manifesto:

"Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer. But while upsetting the naturally grown conditions for the maintenance of that circulation of matter, it imperiously calls for its restoration as a system, as a regulating law of social production, and under a form appropriate to the full development of the human race. In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman's individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer."