Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

Miro's singing fishMarx reserves a special sort of loathing for Malthus. Since chapter 25 of Capital focusses precisely on the ways in which capitalism generates its own distinctive laws of population, the chapter can in many respects be read as a frontal assault on Malthus’ work. Marx’s antipathy is so strong, however, that he has to ease into the direct mention of Malthus’ name. Safeguards are required. A certain amount of buildup is needed.

First, Marx will establish his capacity for equanimity in the face of some fairly explicit apologistic material. Marx quotes – in the main text – Bernard de Mandeville’s sage advice on keeping the poor in their place:

It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in. nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get … Those that get their living by daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make his desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy … (765)

After allowing Mandeville the floor for this and other choice recommendations, Marx praises him – calling Mandeville as “an honest man with a clear mind” – and offering nothing more vituperative than a mild corrective rebuke for Mandeville’s failure fully to understand “the mechanism of the accumulation process” (765). Marx then quotes Eden, who agrees that:

It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community. (766)

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus…

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who… didn’t… Just in case the reader doesn’t make the connection, Marx makes it for them, in the opening sentence of his note:

If the reader thinks at this point of Malthus, whose Essay on Population appeared in 1798, I would remind him that this work in its first form is nothing but a schoolboyish, superficial plagiarism of Defoe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., declaimed in the manner of a sermon, but not containing a single original proposition of Malthus himself.

And so on. For three pages of small-typed footnote, which rapidly veers off into a mischievous round of speculation (for which the textual pretense is an observation about Malthus’ personal vow of celibacy) asking why Protestant clergy in particular should have proven so well-represented amongst theorists of overpopulation, and concluding with comments on how Adam Smith was reprimanded for his friendship with the atheist Hume…

Malthus finally makes his way into the main text of this chapter in section 3, in a discussion of modern industry’s need for surplus population. Malthus figures here as a sort of limit case of the obviousness of the point Marx is making: “Even Malthus”, Marx points out, “recognizes that a surplus population is a necessity of modern industry…” The implication is that, if even Malthus recognises it, the point is simply too obvious to be denied…

Even here, however, Marx can’t give Malthus credit for one point well understood: Malthus accounts for this, Marx argues, “in his narrow fashion, not by saying that part of the working population has been rendered relatively superfluous, but by referring to its excessive growth” (787). Marx quotes Malthus at length here – speaking dourly about how many years it takes to bring “an increase of labourers… into market in consequence of a particular demand”, compared to the much shorter cycles of investment of accumulated capital, such that natural population increase is too blunt a means of increasing the supply of workers to accommodate the vicissitudes of industrial demand (787).

At this point, Marx introduces the burlesque image of political economy as a cross-dressing discourse – one that adopts one character to proclaim the necessity of a surplus population available to deploy at any moment, only then to shift to another character that holds the population responsible for not increasing its numbers beyond what subsistence can allow:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence.’ (787-788)

The final quoted passage does not come from Malthus, but the logic of the section inserts Malthus into this scene – as someone stepping into the character mask required for a particular apologist production, ready to cast that mask aside and step into another as the situation requires…

Malthus crops up again – in the form of a reference to “Malthusians” – in the final section of the chapter, in a passage which summarises the results of a long empirical and theoretical discussion aimed at showing how processes specific to capitalist societies generate demographic trends – laws of population – that are anything but inscribed intrinsically in nature:

Here then, under our own eyes, and on a large scale, there emerges a process which perfectly corresponds to the requirements of orthodox economics for the confirmation of its dogma, the dogma that misery springs from an absolute surplus of population, and that equilibrium is re-established by depopulation. This is a far more important experiment than the mid-fourteenth century plague so celebrated by the Malthusians. (861)

Once again, Marx is unwilling to place Malthus at the centre of his focus – even in a passage in which Marx is essentially claiming to have derived the historically and socially specific basis for the phenomena Malthus reads off onto timeless nature. Once again, Malthus cannot be dignified with a direct discussion, but is allowed to enter the text only obliquely – by way of an aside: “Let us remark in passing,” Marx says:

if it required the naivety of a schoolmaster to apply the standard of the fourteenth century to the relations of production prevailing in the nineteenth century, and the corresponding relations of population, the error was compounded by overlooking the difference between its consequences in England and in France.

Marx underscores here an important point in relation to what he means by “law”. Not only are Marx’s “laws” historically and socially specific – not only are they understood to derive from contingent social practices, rather than invariant nature – but they are also probabilistic – they are tendencies, which play themselves out in different forms in specific situations within the historical and social context Marx sets out to analyse, which confront countervailing tendencies, and which are highly dependent on complex boundary conditions. Like many other chapters in Capital, this chapter draws attention to multiple theoretical possibilities – and a diversity of actual empirical outcomes – every time it attempts to illustrate a “law” at work.

Marx then further highlights the social dimension of the laws that he has derived, by taking one final shot at the Malthusian analogy to the plague – tacitly asking what sort of “natural” law would operate like this:

The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. (861)

The chapter ends with an extended discussion of the Irish famine and migration, emphasising the social character of what is portrayed. It also – characteristically – draws attention to the mirror world – to the unintended consequences of the ways in which this “law” has been allowed to play itself out:

Like all good things in the world, this profitable mode of proceeding has its drawbacks. The accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace with the accumulation of rents in Ireland. The Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian. And there a young but gigantic republic rises, more and more threateningly, to face the old queen of the waves

11 responses to “Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

  1. roger September 18, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Somebody should comment on this!
    I don’t have time to do you justice, NP. But you are certainly right about the entangled relationship between Marx and Malthus – who, as you point out, is an enemy. The great bourgeois revolution has to be growth – it is this break from the old peasant suppositions, the old economy of the limited good, that is so celebrated in the Communist Manifesto. A lot of recent scholarship claims that the great transformation happened earlier than in the Marxist schemata – that factories were appearing in the countryside in Germany and France in the 17th century.

    Marx unerringly catches the vast change in attitude and expectation. And he unerringly sees that the refusal to, for instance, aid the Irish comes out of ideology, now, and not true scarcity. The resources are actually there, so the British elite needed a providence to fall back upon, and it was one blessed by Malthus. And yet, of course, if Capital was, as legend says, intended to be dedicated to Darwin, there’s a certain paradox here, since Darwin saw Malthus as defining a new kind of limit – one that did not come from some exterior, some providence, some fatal circumstance, or from vices like pride, but was generated inside populations themselves by the sum total of the population – that is, the system itself, through its sheer growth, projects natural history into history.

    Well, I’ll stop.

  2. N Pepperell September 18, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Hey roger – buried in marking, so apologies for writing so little in response. You might enjoy this site, though, on the origins of the story that Marx intended to dedicate Capital to Darwin – seems a bit of Aveling’s correspondence was mixed up with Marx’s. Marx was an admirer of Darwin – on my reading, liking the way in which Darwin sought out unintentional patterns – but also criticised Darwin for what, in Marx’s view, was a projection onto nature of the dynamics of contemporary civil society (in some of these critical asides, I think Marx is lumping Darwin in with some of his less savoury appropriators – a bit similar to what Marx sometimes does with Hegel, where you can sort of tell Marx must understand Hegel better than his explicit criticisms of Hegel imply, because he uses Hegel’s techniques so supply in his work. I feel that Marx uses Darwin’s techniques supply as well in certain respects, but his explicit comments don’t do justice to the tacit appropriations… but I’m on far less sure ground in relation to Marx’s relation to Darwin, than to his relation to Hegel… So grain of salt…)

    On the timing of capitalism: Marx seems to date it to the 16th century, while also pointing out that you get factories in some locations in the 13th and 14th – and occasional examples in other times and places. I don’t think Marx incorporates a strong sense of any historical dialectic into his later works – in the sense of thinking that history progresses in developmental stages – although he retains the sense that the way in which material needs are met must be at the centre of any sort of social analysis (he should know better, given his own argument in Capital, but here his own work is a bit the way he describes Adam Smith’s work – where he will speak of the immense effort it took for Smith to distil a concept of labour in general, where the effort is attested by the fact that Smith often still falls back into physiocratic concepts that his own work surpasses. I think Marx often falls back into formulations his own work surpasses as well – he hits the centre of his insights, fumbles around them, loses them, contradicts them – but that centre is what binds the work together, no matter how much it sometimes struggles to hold…)

    Sorry – very disorganised blurting… Essay marking is not the best preparation for thinking about this… 🙂

  3. Greg September 19, 2009 at 6:58 am

    NP, this is a great reading of how Marx’s writing style elucidates his argument. It dovetails with a genealogy of horror-ethics narratives I’ve been looking at in the 1970s debates about “Spaceship Earth” versus “Lifeboat Ethics”–the latter being Malthusian to the core–that I’d like to share.
    Marx is correct to identify Malthus’s genre as the sermon and the imagery of hell as the driving fear. (The mention of Hume is illustrative, since hell would preserve not just the trash of all ages, but preserve them as the detritus of Providence. An overcrowded Malthusian fantasy resembles nothing so much as hell or the end days). Marx would of course revile anyone who based their earthly actions on something as selfish and illusory as the fear of hell. Connecting the Malthusian dots between centuries, Marx’s critique is as valid today as it was then. The target is not exactly ontotheology but certainly ethico-theology; except that the aversion to being the one caught in the hellfires (or in the clutches of Malthus’s four horsemen of population control) prompts scared humans to push their fellow beings into the fires first. In the case of the 1970s debate on environmental and foreign aid policy, the problem was that such a Marxist analysis did not gain traction to rival “lifeboat ethics”, rather it was the other side of the ethico-theological coin, Spaceship Earth, the spiritual brotherhood of mankind.

  4. Pingback: Marx Reading Group – Links «

  5. roger October 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    NP, I don’t know if you saw my comment on the thread on Duncan’s site, but I did mean it – since every Marxist eventually follows some faction – the Kautskyists, the Trotskyists, etc., etc. – I’ve decided to become the first Pepperellian. Actually, it rolls off the tongue rather nicely.

    Now, we just need four more Pepperellians, and then we can violently argue about what you really meant and excommunicate each other. This should be fun!

  6. N Pepperell October 17, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    lol – thank you Roger 🙂 Is it now incumbent on me to follow Marx, and say that I am not a Pepperellian? 🙂

    Sorry I’ve not been posting or commenting anywhere recently – it’s the tail end of the teaching term here, and I’ve been in endless meetings making sure students get across the line of various assessments.

    Duncan’s been pressing me to post here something I shared with him recently, which I wrote an eon ago, back when I was doing proper historical work (of a sort that I want to return to again, once the dust has settled on the degree). It’s the sort of thing that, if I post it, you would probably be the only reader interested in seeing 🙂 – on the concept of poverty in the early Franciscan order, and its relation to the notion that “necessity knows no law”… At some point, when I have time, I’ll try to work out how to toss it up here (I don’t have the piece in soft copy, so it’ll take some concerted time)…

    I’m really looking forward to having the time to write regularly again… Soon… I hope…

    Take care…

  7. areader November 1, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Could you clarify the following–

    …although he retains the sense that the way in which
    material needs are met must be at the centre of any sort of social analysis (he should know better, given his own argument in Capital…

    What should be the center of social analysis?
    What are his own arguments in Capital?


  8. N Pepperell November 2, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Hi areader – apologies that you were held in moderation for so long – it should only happen the first time you comment. I’ve been offline, and so it took me longer than usual to publish your comment…

    Apologies that the passing reference above is a bit confusing – this post is part of a reading group, and so written with an audience in mind who are somewhat familiar with an overarching “read” of Marx that I’ve been putting forward on this site and in other places for some time. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can explain that reading in any convincing way in a single comment, but I can perhaps give some indication of the space in which these lines were written. There is a draft of my thesis under the “Thesis” tab at the top of the page, as well as a lot of other writing on Marx under the “Marx” tab – some of those materials will probably be clearer than I can be here. They will also, of course, be longer 🙂 – so it’s a matter of how much time you want to invest in the reading… 🙂

    I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.

    I’ve written before about a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx praises Smith for developing the category of “labour” – where this term means any sort of productive activity, rather than some specific form of activity (like agriculture). Marx believes that Smith was only able to come up with this category because collective practices were in fact enacting “labour” in that way – there was some dimension of collective life in which we had become genuinely indifferent to whether someone grew food or made handicrafts or provided services. This practical experience made Smith’s theoretical achievement possible, in Marx’s account – which doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have to work very hard to work out, explicitly, the implications of that practical process – to draw the conclusion that “labour” could mean something like productive activity of whatever sort, rather than being tied to some specific kind of production.

    A lot of Capital offers much more complex versions of this sort of argument. It takes categories from political economy (and other forms of theory) and explores what is happening in our practical experience to make it “socially valid” to develop these sorts of categories at a particular period of time. In the process, Marx often also points out that particular forms of theory have seized on practical processes in a “one sided” way – so, a theory may legitimately express something happening in one dimension of social practice – and may be very accurate if applied only to that dimension. However, that same theory may be completely blind to some other dimension of practical experience – and, as a result, it may overextrapolate from the dimension it does express well. It may conclude, for example, that human nature has a certain character, because humans really do behave a certain way in some slice of their social existence. This conclusion can sometimes be undermined just by bringing other slices of social experience to bear on the question. Capital attempts to do this in a systematic fashion.

    When analysing Smith’s category of “labour”, Marx notes that Smith achieved this great breakthrough – he articulated explicitly the implications of this great shift in social practices, which meant that it had become tacitly possible to think about productive activity in general, rather than specific kinds of production. By making this explicit, Smith performed – Marx believed – a great service, making this explicit category available and opening up new forms of perception and practice as a result. However, Smith’s insight was precarious – Marx notes that Smith didn’t always manage to hang onto the best implications of his own insight. Sometimes, Marx argues, Smith slid back into earlier physiocratic understandings of labour – this backsliding, Marx argues, indicates how hard it actually is to hang on, explicitly, to insights that are tacit in new sorts of collective practice – it takes a while for concepts to become intuitive and settle in.

    I would suggest there’s something similar happening with Marx’s more crass or “vulgar” statements about the centrality of material life to human society. The overwhelming thrust of a work like Capital is that what matters is collective practical experience – of whatever sort. The text examines practices associated with material production – but it also examines law, the state, contract relations, customs, ideals, gender relations – basically anything it occurs to Marx to fold in. Moreover, when it does analyse “material” relations, it does so in order to show how we effect our material reproduction through customary practices that have nothing to do with the intrinsic requirements of material production per se – and the text also offers an extremely complex and sophisticated analysis of how we could come to believe in the existence of a disenchanted “material world” in the first place (where the answer is that we come to believe in such a world because, at this moment, we are in fact collectively enacting such a world – and then overextrapolating from the slice of social existence where that enactment takes place, losing sight of our role in making a material world of a certain sort).

    Spelling all this out is complicated – too much for a comment. So this is probably not all that convincing as stated. But it’s what was floating in the background of the offhand comment above. Some of Marx’s explicit statements to the effect that, e.g., how people meet their material needs is more analytically central than, say, language – I view these as similar to Adam Smith sliding back into physiocratic concepts of “labour”: they fall behind the level of sophistication that Marx actually deploys in Capital – they are fundamentally metaphysical – and, since Marx mounts an enormous critique of the metaphysics of political economy in Capital, he really should know better.

    The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

    Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes… not so much. Passages in which he insists that material life is always at the centre are, in my view, “not so much” moments of his work – they get in the way (not just abstractly – this is, historically, practically, the impact they have had) of understanding the sorts of transformations that might be possible, and how those transformations might be achieved.

    But this is all very telescoped… Apologies… I’ve tried to unpack this better over time elsewhere… But hopefully this gives a small sense of where I’m coming from…

    Take care…

  9. RL January 15, 2010 at 7:52 am

    N. Peperell: “I feel that Marx uses Darwin’s techniques supply as well in certain respects, but his explicit comments don’t do justice to the tacit appropriations… but I’m on far less sure ground in relation to Marx’s relation to Darwin, than to his relation to Hegel… So grain of salt…”

    It’s been a while since I read this, but I think the Darwin influence shows particularly in the chapter on Division of Labour (with all the discussion of the growth and withering of branches of economic organisation: both in the sense of a genealogy of the evolution of economic organisation and that economic organisation is itself kind of genealogical, or at least resembles it in its arborescent structure).

    It’s even longer since I read Origin of Species (and then not closely) but I think there’s some talk of organs as a kind of ‘natural technology’ (I think John Bellamy Foster goes into this in Marx’s Ecology). I also think there’s some comparison to be made with Marx’s discussion of skills in manufactories and Darwin’s discussion of instinct, and if you want to go really out there a comparison of capital and Darwin on eusoical insects. This may be nonsense though!

  10. N Pepperell January 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Yes – I think that’s right – and I think, in some ways, this discussion can be read as tacitly embedding Darwin – suggesting aspects of historically-specific everyday social experience that prime us to be receptive to Darwinian forms of analysis (which doesn’t undermine the validity of Darwinian analysis applied to natural, rather than social environments – but it does help explain the timing of Darwin’s insights (why does this kind of analytical framework seem so intuitive and resonant from a certain historical period, but not before), and it also explains why Marx can both seem to borrow so much from Darwin in certain passages, while he also complains in various places that Darwin can be too uncritical in reading off into nature dynamics that are more specific to capitalist civil society).

    Sorry to write in such a compressed way (and sorry you were caught in moderation for so long) – I’m not online much at the moment, so my comments won’t be very adequate…

  11. roger January 17, 2010 at 4:37 am

    Nicole, you should elevate comment 8 to post status, please. It is a pretty good overview, I think.

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