[Marxism] Limits to Growth was right?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 20 09:19:51 MST 2015


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 

"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 agriculture...is 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."

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