Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ronald L. Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

I've written elsewhere about the Reverend Malthus' views on population. His basic theory - that population will always, inevitably outstrip available food supplies has become a mantra for anyone who wants to argue that there are too many people on the planet. In the context of the problem of climate change, this has become an argument that the world doesn't have enough resources to support the population, and if we are to save the planet - the number of humans will have to decrease.

Some of Malthus' earliest and most ferocious critics were Marx and Engels. This book collects together most of their writings on Malthus and related issues with a couple of useful framing essays.

The basic premise of the editor, and indeed the basic argument of Marxists against Malthus and his followers is that "without destroying capitalism, neither a Green Revolution nor population control will put food into the mouths of those who cannot afford it".

In response to the question "why are people hungry?" Marx and Engels preferred to ask "Why is not enough produced?" The answer they argued is to do with the priorities of production under capitalism - production of food or any other commodity is for profit, not for need. If people couldn't afford food, then they wouldn't eat. In Engels' words "the pressure of population is not upon the means of subsistence but upon the means of employment."

This is why you have starvation in the midst of plenty. Both Marx and Engels took great pains to argue the problems with Malthusian theory. Their starting point though, was utter contempt and hatred for the man. Both repeated argued that he was a plagiarist, but their real anger was because he was a "shameless sycophant of the ruling classes".

Malthus wrote his first editions of his work on population in the aftermath of the Great French Revolution. This seismic event had raised in the heads of millions of people, the idea of a more equal, just and free society. Everywhere the ruling classes trembled. Malthus wrote his argument as an explicit attack on those who believed that such a free society was possible. It is a polemic that argues that humans, particularly the "lower orders" are too stupid, to inclined to have more and more children, to lazy to allow a better society to live. But he also believed class division was inevitable and that without it, society would collapse.

Marx and Engels understood this well. They also believed that despite his plagiarism, Malthus had some useful insights into the way the world of economics worked. But for them this was Malthus justifying his position, as, they argued, a supporter of the old landed aristocracy against the new industrial bourgeois. Malthus' work had immediate consequences - the first of these was the hated workhouse system, a system that offered relief only in the must grudging way. As Marx put it;

"in the workhouses charity is ingeniously combined with the revenge of the bourgeoisie upon the poor who appeal to its charity."

For people like Malthus the poor exist because of the inherent laziness of a layer of the lower orders. For Marx and Engels, the poor existed because capitalism found it both useful to have a reserve army of labour ready for economic boom times and because the capitalists profits meant driving down wages and laying workers off. The state had a duty to protect the poor, but Malthusians argued that by doing this you were simply increasing the problem. Overpopulation was inevitable so why bother helping those who couldn't survive anyway?

Throughout their attacks on Malthus and his followers Marx and Engels return to the point that without the revolutionary transformation of society; without the creation of a new world were production is planned in the interest of need, not profit there would continue to be people who starve in the midst of plenty. There would also be those, like Malthus, who try to find pseudo-scientific arguments for why this is inevitable, presumably to make the bitter pill of their own culpability easier to swallow.

Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb, edited by Ronald L. Meek with a foreword by Steve Weissman, is long out of print. Selections from it can be found online here. The introduction is useful, though any author who uncritically quotes Stalin on production should be read critically themselves. The collection contains a variety of works from Marx and Engels, including some of their letters, Engels' Condition of the Working Class and Anti-During, Marx's Theories of Surplus Value and Capital.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iain Fenlon - Piazza San Marco

The heart of Venice, the Piazza San Marco is properly considered one of the most beautiful centres of a city anywhere. Its history is inseparable from the history of Venice - it is here that city leaders met, invading armies occupied, rebellions focused and visitors - pilgrims at first and tourists in more recent times - have gathered in their millions.

For the author though, there is a dangerous tendency to see the Piazza simply as a lovely square surrounded by individual buildings - the Doges' Palace, the Basilica of San Marco and the Campanile tower for instance. Rather, he argues, we should see them as a collective whole that has evolved over time, to encapsulate Venice as a place with a history.

This history is surprisingly complex, though mostly it centers on Venice's unique geographical position that allowed its merchants to become fat on the wealth generated from being a maritime power near the juncture of the West and the East. Its Churches brought in wealth by becoming the focus for pilgrimages to see the extensive collection of relics. Today less than 60,000 people live in the city. The millions of tourists are served by a visiting population, unable to afford to live in the city, but their dollars or Euros are no less sucked up by the city.

In some ways, Venice is remarkably artificial. No more so than in the constant worry that it will sink beneath the lagoon if left to nature. But its history is also unnatural. To justify their wealth and power, the city's rulers had to invent a host of traditions and myths to explain the city. Many of these lasted centuries, even now receiving an echo in tourist guides.

Fenlon shows how the city's decline in the Napoleonic era led to its re-discovery by modern artists and writers, for whom Venice came to symbolise some mythical romantic ideal. The city being "raised from the spoils of the teeming Orient" wrote Disraeli. But for others the city symbolised decadence and decay, perhaps most artfully visualised in Visconti's film of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.

Today Venice is the ultimate tourist trap. Its history seems oddly remote and immaterial, a backdrop to a ornate decorations and art collections. Iain Fenlon has done a service to bring it to life for the casual reader and for those who would like to visit the city and have some idea of whence it came.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thomas Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

The work of the Reverend Thomas Malthus can easily be said to have had a major influence on subsequent thought. Indeed, it must rank up there with works like the Communist Manifesto as books that have shaped the thoughts of entire generations. This is a shame for several reasons. Firstly, Malthus is unashamedly a partisan of the establishment. Secondly, a through reading of the various editions of his most famous work “An Essay On the Principle of Population” will demonstrate that his arguments are flawed and don't argue what is commonly believed.

For those who use Malthus' name as shorthand for a particular argument – that the world has only enough resources for a set number of people, will find themselves baffled by the content of the Essay. At the core of his work is the idea that human populations will always outstrip the available food supply. But his work isn't really about that problem. It is a series of polemics against a much more dangerous idea to the rich and privileged members of Malthus' class.

Malthus is taking up arms again those dangerous radicals who, inspired by the French Revolution of a few years previously, believed that it would be possible for humans to live in a just and equal society. While understanding that the lot of the poor and lower classes wasn't pleasant, his belief was that the lower orders were inherently greedy. Increasing the amount of money for the poor wouldn't improve their lives, it would simply make them lazy

“The receipt of five shillings a day, instead of 18 pence, would make every man fancy himself comparatively rich and able to indulge himself in many hours or days of leisure..... in a short time, not only the nation would be poorer, but the lower classes themselves would be much more distressed than when they received only 18 pence a day.”

This cynical attitude to the “lower orders” filters through into his views on population growth. If a utopian society was to exist, it would soon collapse, “from the inevitable laws of our nature.... into a class of proprietors and a class of labourers”. But such a society couldn't exist anyway, because if the abundance available in such a society were to come true, then human nature would rapidly destroy it. With no worries on childcare women would simply have more and more children for instance, rapidly driving society beyond its means of sufficiency.

Malthus' views of people are perhaps summed up by his view of the life of a “savage”, who would;

“slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinching of cold... the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity”.

And those who would create a society with more free time for the hardest working run into a further problem according to Malthus,

"Leisure is, without doubt, highly valuable to man, but taking man as he is, the probability seems to be that in the greater number of instances it will produce evil rather than good."

Of course there is reason to all this.

“The principle, according to which population increases, prevents the vices of mankind, or the accidents of nature, the partial evils arising from general laws, from obstructing the high purpose of creation.”

In other words, the check on the growth of human population exists to ensure that the amount of vice created by man is kept to a minimum.

Malthus believed in three checks on population growth. The first Moral Restraint, was obviously a good thing for the Reverend (how he wails about those who marry early and thus must have more children). The second was Vice. Malthus believed, like many of his time, that increased sexual behaviour reduced birth rates - but obviously, increased sex, drinking and other leisure pursuits of the lower orders was not a good thing. Finally, Misery was the largest check – famine, war, plague and so on.

Despite the impact of his work, Malthus had many critics. Not least because of the lack of evidence for many of his most central observations – that human population growths geometrically while food production only increases arithmetically for instance. Some of his most consistent critics were radicals like Marx and Engels who understood that Malthus' work was an assault on the very idea that you could improve the lot of the poor. I will deal with their criticisms elsewhere, but I would direct readers who want a brief introduction to the Marxist arguments against Malthus to the essay written on the 200th anniversary of its first publication in John Bellamy Fosters book “Ecology Against Capitalism”. [My review of that book here.]

Malthus lived in changing times. Much of the beliefs he held true would be swept away as the industrial revolution continued to transform society. The United Kingdom can easily support a population in excess of 56 million, even though he believed it impossible. There are other checks on population growth – contraception and abortion were words that the morally restrained author couldn't even consider. But the truth is, that the more educated and richer a society the lower birthrates are likely to be.

Today, Malthus is claimed by those who argue that environmental crisis can only be solved by a reduced population. But we must argue that the problem is not the number of individuals, but a social and economic system that delivers not in the interests of those people, but for the needs of big business. The biggest polluting nations per capita, are not necessarily the most highly populated. But even if they were, the danger with these neo-Malthusian arguments is that we blame the poorest in society for the situation the world is in, rather than challenging an inherently irrational system.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Peter Linebaugh - The Magna Carta Manifesto, Liberties and Commons for all

Peter Linebaugh's sweeping history of Magna Carta, one of the founding documents of law couldn't come at a better time. This ancient text, with its limits on tyranny, its prohibition of torture, its securing of the right to trial by jury and of course, habeas corpus, has never been needed so much. Under the guise of the war on terror, many governments have sought to undermine these ancient rights and in the first instance Linebaugh's book is a rallying cry to defend them. It is with a only a limited irony that the author can quote a legal expert recently saying "If anyone had told me 20 years ago that fighting for the rights in Magna Carta or the rule of law would be seen as revolutionary behaviour, I would have laughed."

However, Linebaugh's history shows us something else. Magna Carta has always been a battleground - it evolved out of the struggle between the Barons and King John, and its interpretation has been used by everyone from those who would fight for liberty and freedom, to those who would establish the free market in the New World and justify slavery.

Through the book we read of rebellion and counter-rebellion. From peasant revolts to lawyers seeking to prove the slave trade illegal, it takes many forms. But often what marks the rebellion is Magna Carta. Sometimes it's quoted legally, sometimes it's inscribed on banners or referred to in rhetoric. It's always part, however, of a collective consciousness.

Sometimes the book is hard going. Linebaugh's florid style can be hard to follow and sometimes I felt there was a certain expectation on the reader having some legal knowledge. Nonetheless, there is much here for a casual reader. Linebaugh is on of the best contemporary historians in the "history from below" school, and deserves a read.

Peter Linebaugh's explicit reason for writing this history is to put the idea of "the commons back on the agenda of the political constitution". In other words, the concept of collective rights, of equal access to resources and land, of social organisation and living must be part of our future, just as it is part of our past.

Related Review

Linebaugh - The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century