Sarkar’s confused defense of Malthus's capitalist ideology

Deep ecology versus ecosocialism, part 4. A prominent Marxist Humanist says that Saral Sarkar’s defense of Malthus against Marx and Engels is “astoundingly wrong-headed”

The following article is a response to Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism. It first appeared in slightly different form on the EI-Network discussion list, and is posted here with the author’s permission.

By Franklin Dmitryev

Saral Sarkar’s claims about Malthus and Marx are astoundingly wrong-headed. The urge to reduce population trends, economic trends, or “political ecology” to laws of nature is such a fundamental error that it is bound to lead to totally wrong conclusions. Even so, it is surprising that one could still maintain today that Malthus’s “two theses (should we say laws?) on growth of food production and population growth are scientifically valid, even today, despite all the scientific and technological developments that have taken place since then. We should not be blind to facts.”

But what is the relationship of this claim to the facts? Malthus’s theses of geometric growth in population and arithmetic growth in food supply are so mistaken that they were already clearly false in his own lifetime. In over 200 years since that time, global food supply has more or less kept up with global human population growth, without a catastrophic population crash. This is not to say that we should be complacent about the future, but Malthus is simply wrong.

Or is Sarkar trying to separate the “two theses” (which are left unstated) from the way Malthus actually formulated them? Even if you disregard the nonsense about geometrical vs. arithmetic growth, the non-mathematical statement of the thesis is as follows:

“Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind, that in every age and in every State in which man has existed, or does now exist, That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase. And, That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.”

How could any ecosocialist accept the obviously fatalistic view that there is a supra-historical law of nature dooming population to shrink or grow “necessarily” and “invariably” in proportion to “means of subsistence”? The irrefutable corollary is, as Malthus intended, that socialism is utterly futile, that even welfare (the Poor Law) is futile and counterproductive, and we must reconcile ourselves to the doctrine that “there will be poor always.” Logically, the “political opinions” of Malthus that Sarkar wishes to reject are inseparable from the so-called laws of nature to which we are supposed to bow.

Sarkar’s supercilious statements, “Unfortunately, the vicious attacks of Marx and Engels against Malthus are still influencing the discussion among socialist political activists….The writings of Marx and Engels are not holy scripture,” imply that Malthus is all “fact” and anyone who takes Marx’s critique seriously is just dogmatic. One would have hoped for a more serious attitude toward theory than this.

Sarkar’s fundamental philosophical error is again reflected in the claim, “Engels was absolutely wrong when he, in criticizing Malthus, wrote in 1865 that ‘economic laws are not eternal laws of nature but historic laws which arise and disappear.’”

On the face of it, Sarkar appears to endorse the position that economic laws are eternal laws of nature. That is precisely the fetishism of commodities that Marx criticized, and is the ideology that shores up capitalism. Its current form is the doctrine that “there is no alternative.”

It is possible that this was simply an unclear formulation and that Sarkar actually meant that Engels was wrong to call the “laws” of Malthus “economic laws.” Sarkar continues:

“The two laws of Malthus are not economic laws…. The two laws of Malthus are very much laws of nature belonging to the area of life sciences (biology). Population growth is basically a function of the biotic potential of the human species embedded in our genes. And the amount of food production is basically a function of three variables: availability of fertile soil (chemical quality of soil), availability of fresh water. and amount of sunshine reaching the field. All three are geographical givens, which may change naturally, but only in the course of centuries…. So the law of diminishing returns, an economic law, is very much grounded in laws of nature.”

This betrays much confusion. It starts out by trying to separate, radically separate, economic laws from laws of nature. It ends by affirming that economic law (at least a particular “law”) is grounded in laws of nature. And in the middle it appeals to “facts” that are simply untrue. Amount of food production most certainly depends on whether and how human labor, knowledge, and technology are applied, among other factors. But those are completely excluded from the claim. One may have noticed that food production in recent decades has changed much faster than “in the course of centuries.” Or are we talking about a theory that is never observable in real life and can only be justified via Ptolemaic circles?

Above all, the attempt to portray “laws of Malthus” as laws of nature has led to the incredible claim that “Population growth is basically a function of the biotic potential of the human species embedded in our genes.” Rather than being so dismissive of Marx, it would have been better to try to understand his explanation in Volume I of Capital that each historical mode of production has its own special laws of population, and that the ideologues who portrayed the capitalist version of this as an eternal law of nature were hiding the historical and therefore transitory nature of the reduction of human beings to bearers of labor-power as a commodity, making them dependent on capital.

Anyone who wishes to uphold the “laws” of Malthus needs to deal with this fact, which is to say, the complete inseparability of these “laws” from pro-capitalist ideology. Whether it is labeled “ecosocialism,” “deep ecology,” or “biocentrism,” any theory that conceives of historical relations as eternal laws of nature is fatally flawed.

Franklin Dmitryev is Co-National Organizer of the Marxist-Humanist organization News and Letters Committees. His blog is at dmitryev.wordpress.com.

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This is an ongoing discussion. The following contributions have been posted on Climate and Capitalism to date:

  1. Ian Angus: Deep ecology versus ecosocialism
  2. David Orton: Why I am not an ecosocialist
  3. Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism
  4. Franklin Dmitryev: Sarkar’s confused defense of Malthus’s capitalist ideology
  5. Ian Angus: A letter to Saral Sarkar on population, wilderness, and ecosocialism
  6. Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism and the Population Question: An Open Reply to Ian’s Open Letter 

 

Posted in Ecosocialism, Population
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Jeff White
5 years 2 months ago

Sarkar feels “sad” when a human being “dies prematurely due to hunger or lack of medical treatment”, but apparently not quite so sad about killing newborn babies in the name of population control.

It never seems to occur to him that lack of food and medical care in capitalist societies is an issue of class, gender, and race – or that emancipation, not extermination, is the answer.

5 years 2 months ago

I like the approach of Chris Rodgers. Forget for some time Marx and Malthus, capitalism and socialism. There is a very scientific term: “biotic potential”. The biotic potential of a human female appears to be roughly (or on average) 16 issues. My German mother-in-law gave birth to 13. I know many women from the previous generations, both in India and Germany, who had 12, 14 and even 15 births. The number of children can be controlled by ourselves through killing off of new-born babies, abortion, contraception and sexual abstinence. If we do not do that ourselves, nature will do that, because there are limits to growth of food production. Since we are sad when a human being dies prematurely due to hunger or lack of medical treatment, it is better that we ourselves control the number of births in our species through contraception. If we are already too many, then we can in the long term reduce our number through conscious policy.That is all about population control. Why is anybody upset to hear this phrase?

Chris Rodgers
5 years 2 months ago

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that when I pointed out that the developed countries are the ones who are using up the resources and controlling population growth in developing countries would hardly touch the humanities carbon footprint, I was jumped on for idealizing indigenous people and others in developing countries.

Reducing waste and living more simply ourselves really should come before we ask those who use few resources to decrease their population growth. Based on carbon footprint, we should do away with everyone in the US. (Not really.) The planet might do better without any humans but the earth brought us into being and she is stuck with us for the time being. Even when I believe it is hopeless I know that it is also part of human nature to continue working for a better way. If we end up going down, I choose to do so believing we will succeed, doing my part, studying, spreading the word, discussing, arguing, teaching, setting an example and living as simply as is possible at any given moment.

Chris Rodgers
5 years 2 months ago

Franklin Dimitryev,
I am terribly sorry that I am not more exact about who’s views I am commenting on in any given part of my comments. Actually, I have read several articles, arguments and comments on the population topic and I was probably trying to respond to the whole discussion and not specifically your statements. Again, I am sorry.

I did identify with Louis who said he was hoping to read some scientific arguments. I do get the feeling as he did that everyone writes as if by denouncing another’s writing and/or logic they would prove what the “truth” was and discover facts akin to scientific proof.

I don’t go along with Malthus. He wasn’t really basing his “laws” on any real scientific research or verifiable experimenting was he. And if he was, his “laws” as he proposed them don’t hold up anymore do they? I haven’t personally read him. His ideas were presented to me long ago, probably in an ecology class of some sort.

I find though that several writers and commentators to this website seem to be desperately upset with the belief of anyone who sees the earth as limited or believes that there are obviously limits to human population growth and they equate them with Malthus. The emotional rejection of these facts even though they no longer support Malthus do defy logic. And that was the main point I was trying to make in my comment at the end of your article. You actually said nothing that put you into that same group. Well, on second thought, you did imply that I should face that I was describing an unfree humanity not in control of the direction of society’s development.

I am guessing that the strong emotional rejection my comments evoke stems from the fact that some writers in the past must have used the idea that human population growth is limited by the limits of the earth’s resources as proof that we must either quit trying, continue on with capitalism or let the weak die off. I’m sure this is a gross simplification of a complex discussion but I want to point out that there must be some reason that these ideas are so upsetting.

I would think that facing the limits of our planet and also facing the human biological tendency to over populate an ecosystem would help us develop solutions that fit all the facts including the economic and societal considerations. For example, when a woman can plan on a decent standard of living, has the power to control her reproduction and hope for a better future including healthcare and education for her offspring, she tends to limit her own pregnancies. Social conditions obviously can over-ride biology. Being a social animal is also part of our genetics.

I have no doubt that given the end of capitalism, and with a great deal of thought, insight, experimentation and study and the ability of the workers to actually have a voice in how their societies function, we can limit population growth, fairly reduce our population over time, and reduce the waste of our natural resources. I know Capitalism will not justly solve these problems. Given time and opportunity, I have faith in the creativity and intelligence of mankind as a whole, especially those at the bottom who normally are written off as not “knowing” enough.

I’m actually a hopeless romantic but I do believe in facing the facts. It is important we face what has been done by humans up to now. It is apparently part of human nature to do these things. Capitalist owners are also human though I would like to think that those who seek unlimited power over others and over their environment are pathological versions of “normal” people. Maybe Western civilization itself is pathological. It might not be. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other qualities just as inherent that we can bring to the forefront.

In response to your last two paragraphs, I feel describing the inherent trajectory of human population growth biologically, including the resultant limitations of resources is NOT necessarily a prediction of an unfree humanity not in conscious free control of its direction. I would say instead that in the past, humanity was NOT conscious of what it might do, because it simply believed with no thought that what had been done up to that point was what would always be done. Humankind accepted a limited view of its biological, economic, and social reality with no questions, no scientific inquiry.

I see the past and present instead as only one possibility resulting from some “givens” as well as many variables. If we accept and examine the scientific facts or “givens” together with all the variables, humans may as a society imagine other possibilities in which we can, over time, create fair and just ways to limit population while living a sustainable lifestyle on the planet.

5 years 2 months ago

Chris Rodgers,
It is difficult to understand why you imagine I am making the statements you seem to attribute to me.

For example, who argued that “science and technology always manage to keep food production equal to the needs of growth”? Nobody here. The point was that the “laws” of Malthus are contradicted by the facts of actual historical developments.

I don’t know why you would think that the fact that the planet has limits somehow contradicts what I wrote. One of the common problems of green thinkers’ references to Malthus today is that he is often used as a symbol of the very general position that humanity must understand the limits nature places on human actions. Then the sharp critiques of Malthus by Marx and Engels are falsely interpreted as evidence that they believed in a never-ending quantitative expansion of production and disregarded any natural limits.

These tired old myths are based on misunderstanding both Malthus and Marx. I would ask you to get these myths out of your mind and try rereading what I actually wrote.

For one thing, you seem to have overlooked my simple statement, “This is not to say that we should be complacent about the future, but Malthus is simply wrong.” The point of the piece was not to expound on the real challenges to food production that lie ahead—such as climate change, soil degradation, overuse and pollution of water—or on the severe consequences of the system of industrial agriculture that capitalism has developed. I have written about those many times. But you seem to assume some sort of denial of these problems because you are reading me through the prism of anti-Marxian myths.

Even worse than deploying Malthus as a very general symbol of the planet’s finitude, he is used in a more specific way as the standard-bearer of the “overpopulation” thesis. If that were as benign as the way you state it–“there IS a limit on population growth”–it would seem undeniable. But, as I pointed out in the post above, that is not an accurate summary of what Malthus argued, which has an extremely retrogressive ideological function. The assumption that scientific arguments about population can be separated from “economic or political or philosophical ones” is an obstacle to grasping the danger of that ideology.

Those who have tried to make Malthus a hero of ecology are doing the movement no favors.

Aside from that, one of the salient points often made in these debates is that the impact of human population on the planet does not depend on population size alone—so a “scientific argument” separate from economic and social considerations cannot answer the question. I would certainly disagree with the idea that the inherent biological nature of human reproduction is some sort of scientific explanation of human population growth in the modern world or of human impact on the planet.

It should be clear that the capitalist mode of production is a huge factor in that impact, and, as I have written elsewhere, its tendency to grow regardless of the effects on humanity and nature (which was pointed out by Marx, and not by Malthus) makes it ever more destructive to the environmental conditions of human society—which would be true even if population were not growing. It is a tendency that we cannot completely halt short of freely associated human relations.

What you describe as the inherent trajectory of human population is a description of unfree humanity, not in conscious, free control of the direction of society’s development.

Chris Rodgers
5 years 2 months ago
I understand what Louis is saying. I too keep waiting for a scientific argument instead of economic or political or philosophical ones. In the end, technology is based on science. If your argument is that science and technology always manage to keep food production equal to the needs of growth, then I think it necessary to listen to what science has to say about the limits of the planet as well as the human species’ genomic ability to increase its numbers more quickly than many other mammalian species, using up a wide variety of resources in order to do so. I’ll return to this. I am afraid, being of a more scientific bent and coming late to “economic theory,” I do not understand why seeing the planet as limited and the human population as growing more quickly than other species of our size, I do not see why that means I must agree with Capitalism? Possibly Capitalists use these facts in someway to argue for their economic theory? I don’t see the relationship and would love someone to explain this to me. I love philosophy, history, economic theory, and other explorations of why things are the way they are ans other questions such as: can things be different? How did we get here? Are there better places to go? Can we organize human society to be more just? What is justice? What do we need? Why do we need? What do we want out of life? How do we meet our needs? How do societies work? How does the mind work? How do social groups work? How do we treat each other and why? What is important? What is reality? But I never thought these discussions were more than creative exploration which might guide us in our plans, endeavors, activity, artistic and scientific exploration and experimentation. Maybe logic exercises? Just because you can come up with a pretty good argument or theory does not make it scientific fact. For example, the economic theory of the “free market” or Capitalism. The next step after theory is experimentation. Economic theories don’t even sound like science to me. They sound like “possible” explanations. Not even educated guesses. Here are some facts. Fact: The planet is limited. Not much besides energy is coming in to the system. And energy always ends up as low grade heat energy either here or back out in space in the end. The earth will not ever increase to two planets in size. One can even estimate how much of any given resource there is. Make huge grossly un-exact estimates if you choose. At some point it will become obvious there are limits. For example, if we could turn the oceans into fresh water, there would be SOME population of humans that would take up all the land and drink all the water. Therefore, water and land are limited. Fact: Can you imagine some amount of humans that the planet could not support? Yes? 100 billion maybe? Then there IS a limit on population growth simply by amount of space if nothing else. We may not know exactly how many that is, but it is a scientific fact that there is one, somewhere between 6 billion and 100 billion. So it cannot be said that there is NO limit to human population growth on this planet. Yes, science and technology have increased our food supply beyond anyone’s imagination in the mid nineteenth century. The relevant question is exactly how this was done? It was possible because we discovered a condensed energy source of stored sunlight that was taken into the bodies of lifeforms eons ago which died and were then preserved in such a way that the energy was not released back into the biosphere as heat through decomposition. We have been spending this energy to create money by exploiting and ruining good and marginal soils and making monocrops that could not exist without fertilizer, chemicals, machinery and transportation all of which rely on petroleum. At the same time we gave up more efficient, sustainable methods for food production, thereby depleting our soil productivity, leaving us worse off than before. Can we come up with as intense an energy source when petroleum is gone? Believe me, using the same logic method as is used above we can show that there IS a limit to the amount of petroleum on this planet. Will we be capable of enough nuclear, enough solar, enough thermal and wind energy to continue producing food for a growing population? Using the same logic it can shown there are limits to the amount of usable resources of metal, silicon, uranium, petroleum, water, and other elements to develop enough alternate forms of energy fast enough in order to produce the same amount of food by the same industrial methods. We don’t know exactly what those limits are but we know the limits exist. We can scientifically and logically come up with some upper limits for each resource needed whether we conclude we have several more centuries or a few more decades worth. It is only a matter of time and amount of population growth. Blame the waste of resources and the degradation of our soil and other life systems on Capitalism. The concern was not ever to feed more people but was instead to make more profit for the few who always skim off any extra for themselves. And back to population. There is scientific definition and description for the reproduction technique that the human species settled on genetically which as a side effect, tends to increase our numbers to the limit of our environment. Ecological systems produce species that respond to limits and changes in resources by a decrease in population, often by die off or the species limits reproduction in response to information received from that environment. When you combine the human reproduction traits with our inclination to move on to newer ecosystems, our ability to invent new behaviors in response to change, invent new… Read more »
Louis Thiemann
5 years 2 months ago

Oh, this is such a bad example of how to dicuss. Denouncing like it was a sport. Who finds/invents the most ‘fundamental errors’ in a comrade’s sentences win’s the golden trumpet for pronounced wittyness. And I, after reading three texts, expecting a scientific argument, must go home without gain.

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