Marx 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