In a briefing paper, the UK-based CornerHouse Research and Solidarity Group notes that Malthusian thinking is providing an enduring argument for the prevention of social and economic change and to obscure, in both academic and popular thinking, the real roots of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 31 July 2000 -- A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, end of the Cold War and the triumph of the capitalist market, Malthusian thinking is being enlisted to counter land claims, opposition to free trade policies and emigration to seek work.

In a briefing paper, “Poverty, Politics and Population,” the UK-based CornerHouse Research and Solidarity Group notes that Malthusian thinking is providing an enduring argument for the prevention of social and economic change and to obscure, in both academic and popular thinking, the real roots of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.

The briefing paper is an edited extract of ‘The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development’ by Eric B Ross, published by Zed Books, London. Ross is an anthropologist at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands.

Thomas Malthus was a late 18th century Church of England cleric, an originator of the theory about human population - its doubling every 25 years, thus growing at a geometric proportion while food production increases at just an arithmetic rate, and hence population always outstripping food supply. This Malthusian assumption persists even today as a common explanation for poverty and environmental degradation. This theory continues to produce in the West and among Western-influenced elites an unremitting anxiety about ‘over-population’, and has been providing an enduring argument for prevention of social and economic change and obscuring the real roots of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.

“As such, no other ideological framework has so effectively legitimised Western interests, development theories and strategies, especially the Green Revolution and, now, genetic engineering in agriculture. This argument has consistently overwhelmed other explanations of poverty.  Malthusian famine scenarios have systematically distracted attention from the fact that it is not people’s reproductive habits that are the principal source of most of the misuse or waste of the world’s resources, but the contradictions and motives of capitalist development.”

In his first Essay on the Principles of Population, population pressure is treated as a ‘law of nature’ making poverty natural and inevitable, and the ‘positive checks’ of disease and starvation regarded as chief routes through which population pressure can (and should be) alleviated. By suggesting that the fertility of the poor - rather than chronic or periodic unemployment, the fencing of common lands, or high food prices—was the main source of their poverty and implying that the poor’s fertility cannot be significantly influenced by human intervention, Malthus acquitted the property-owning class and the political economic system of accountability for poverty. Malthus insisted that anything that humans might do through their own social and political efforts to redress inequalities or to mitigate suffering would be counter-productive since it would only increase population and place more pressure on productive resources. A system of common ownership capable of supporting greater populations was, moreover, an affront to the ‘natural’ order of things. Capitalism was the only admissible system.

A major focus of Malthus’s concerns, as that of the English capitalists, industrialists and gentry, was the poor laws. Established in the 16th century, they provided for local parish relief paid for out of taxation, not as a charity, but a form of social control of the great numbers of poor who had been displaced by enclosure of common lands and driven to seek a living wherever and however they could. But by late 18th century, the poor laws were regarded by the wealthier individuals not only as a drain on their own private income but as a principal impediment to creation of a free and mobile labour reserve which emerging industrial capitalism required to make the most of the opportunities for investment and profit.

For the landed and commercial interests, Malthusian theory offered a compelling line of argument: fertility of the poor was being stimulated by the security which poor relief offered, and made the reproductive habits of the poor responsible for their poverty. “What Malthusian thinking obscured was the fact that, while there were indeed increasing number of dependent poor, they had to a large degree been made, not born. Neither the rise of a proletariat nor the rising cost of poor relief was due to increasing population per se, but to the intense commercialisation of agriculture, the accompanying enclosure of common lands, and laws to keep price of grain high.”

Malthusianism found an intellectual ally a century later in eugenics.  Malthusian theory had always presumed that the poor were not the equals of the more privileged, that they lacked the middle-class virtue of ‘moral restraint’ - prudence, foresight, self-discipline and capacity to manage one’s affairs in a rational manner.

In the second half of the 19th century, eugenics took this thinking a step further by arguing that the over-popular poor’s moral deficiencies were innate. It proposed at first that birth control, including sterilisation, be used to prevent certain categories of the ill or disabled from polluting the national gene pool. But it rapidly came to be viewed as a way of dealing with a broader spectrum of social ills.

One of those who subscribed to this view was Winston Churchill who, as Home Secretary in 1910, endorsed and circulated among the cabinet an article in the Eugenics Review entitled ‘The Feeble-Minded - A Social Danger.’ Once it became fashionable to think that diseases were generally the result of hereditary factors and that many social problems were actually ‘medical’, unacceptable political beliefs could easily be described as symptoms of mental disorder. It required little for the phrase ‘people of weak intellect’ to include socialists.

The discipline of demography - which problematised ‘over-population’ largely as a question of women’s fertility - arose in the United States after the First World War within a largely eugenic framework. Most of the real professionals in the new field were drawn to the study of fertility by their concerns about the ‘differential rate of reproduction by social class and supposedly related inherent characteristics of intelligence and even character.’

This was still in evidence 30 years later when The Population Council, established by John D.Rockfeller III in 1952 out of concern about the potential impact of population growth in developing countries, showed unmistakable signs of eugenic sympathies during its first decade— funding the American Eugenics Society and offering support for the Eugenics Quarterly.

The Population Council has since played a critical role in theoretical research on ‘population questions’ and in development of contraceptive techniques. Some of these, such as Norplant, were intended for use in Western-sponsored population control programmes which provided means for Third World women to limit their fertility under circumstances that were rarely fully voluntary.

In the shadow of Nazism and revelations about the Holocaust, eugenic ideas had to go underground. The principal vehicle for Malthusian fears became instead the threat of environmental catastrophe. Fairfield Osborn’s ‘Our Plundered Planet’ in 1948 marked the beginning of this new shift, culminating in 1968 when the Sierra Club commissioned and published Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book, ‘The Population Bomb’. By 1978, an eminent biologist was claiming “ecology’s first social law should be written: ‘All poverty is caused by the continued growth of population’.”

And one of the most influential ventures into social commentary of Malthus’s new biologist allies was Garret Hardin’s essay, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). Hardin argued that if people are allowed to breed freely, yet their children are all given equal rights to a limited commons, the world will be locked ‘into a tragic course of action’, leading to environmental destruction. Only private ownership of crucial resources and an inegalitarian distribution of the right to reproduce could prevent the tragedy, in Hardin’s view. Such projects as the welfare state and land reform in developing countries were pointless, Hardin implied.

The central point in ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was that only private property could protect the environment against over-population, an argument which has become a cardinal tenet of contemporary neo-liberal dogma.

Population control became part of national security planning in the US.  The first official body of the US government to advocate neo-Malthusian policies was the President’s Committee to study the US Military Assistance Program. Chaired by General William Draper Jr, the Committee recommended government financing of population research as part of security planning.

Towards the end of 1960, in part through the efforts of General Draper and John D. Rockfeller III, population control became pivotal to development strategies designed to address poverty, hunger and low wages. By 1968, curbing population growth became central to the World Bank’s development policy, and has remained so ever since. In 1967, the UN established its Population Trust Fund, with most of its financial support coming from the US. It was reorganized in 1969, as the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and has consistently adhered at its highest levels and its official publications to a neo-Malthusian position.

Malthusianism came to justify one of the most influential Western development strategies of the post-war period: the commercialisation of Third World agriculture, ‘The Green Revolution’, and played a central role in subduing demands for land reform.

Analysing the course of agrarian reform (and its demise) in Vietnam, the Philippines and Guatemala, the CornerHouse paper points out that the western tenet that rising populations had occupied all the land in the South suitable for agriculture rationalised the emergence of the Green Revolution. It was presented as the only solution to the Malthusian spectre of famine.

The argument conveniently side-stepped the fact that large farmers frequently under-utilised land which peasants could have brought into food production. In reality, the Green Revolution simultaneously denied the yield-raising potential of land redistribution and reoriented production to world markets rather than to local subsidence needs.

One of the ultimate aims of such a system was that local food production in developing countries would actually be reduced. Third World agriculture would be developed in favour of agricultural exports, while the US profited as a supplier of agricultural inputs and as the principal source of foodgrains for the Third World. The Green Revolution thus turned out to be less about improving the food security of the poor in developing countries than about securing the economic interests of the US and Western multinationals.

There have always been alternatives to the Green Revolution, but these were suppressed. In 1960s, Gunnar Myrdal argued that Asian agriculture’s future lay in greater, not less labour-intensiveness.  Research carried out in West Bengal (India) in 1972, demonstrated how a system perceived by the West as traditional and inefficient could be defended as ecologically more rational than the industrialized system found in the US. Where Indian cattle were reared on by-products of crops grown for human use, there was virtually no competition between humans and animals for food or land. Cattle food - rice-straw, rice hulls and chopped banana tree trunks - tended to be locally produced and cattle converted it into products that humans could use, including calves, work, milk, dung (for fertiliser and fuel). In contrast in the US, where agriculture fertiliser is based on petro-chemicals, cattle manure is wasted and ends up being a major environmental liability. The growing evidence that Green Revolution agriculture is less efficient than its predecessors has led some writers to conclude that measuring success by high yields alone is misconceived.

But Malthusian thinking shows no signs of dying out.

As policies of ‘free trade’, open capital markets, and unrestricted and unregulated investment are implemented, the contradictions of capitalist development become more acute. An unprecedented rise in the international flow of capital has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the instability of the world capitalist economy, growing inequalities throughout the South and much of the North, and new forms of resistance.

The new rhetoric of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘globalisation’ is unable to obscure how the new economic regime is exacerbating, rather than resolving, social and environmental problems in the South, while also accelerating economic and ideological polarisation. And Malthusian thinking is being enlisted to defend inequality and justify, defend or enlarge the rights of private property.

Resuscitating Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” idealogy, Virginia Abernethy, former editor of the Population and Environment journal, has recently defended the legitimacy of unevenly distributed wealth on the ground it is crucial to conservation of scarce resources and to the legitimacy of ownership itself. Abernathy and other neo-Malthusians have tried to ensure that environmental policies focus above all on the destructive role of over-population in developing countries.

A corollary of this Malthusian view is that immigration too is a form of redistribution, and as such, prevents the poor of the South from understanding the reality of finite resources.

From this, Abernathy proceeds to warn against “large transfers of technology and funds to the Third World” which would, like the poor laws of a century and half ago, ameliorate worsening livelihoods and simultaneously stimulate fertility.

An increasingly prevalent view in Northern development thinking is that regional conflicts arise chiefly from environmental crises in which Malthusian pressure plays a paramount role. Attributing conflicts arising from resource scarcity to Malthusian pressures, rather than neo-colonialism or neo-liberalism, meanwhile serves the function of making Western interventions appear more benign.

Even global warming, principally the result of digging up fossil fuels to drive a century and a half of industrial capitalism, has become an argument for population control in the developing world. The Population Council (on whose board of trustees is World Bank President James Wolfensohn) also attempts to transform climate change into an issue centred on future population growth in the South.

And it is in this environmental language that most Malthusian or dysgenic fears about immigration are now expressed, disregarding the causes of the rise in international migration, including the pressures which globalisation of capitalism is placing on Southern resources in the service of Northern economies.

The reason peasants are on the move now as never before is not because they have had too many children. It is in large part because the interests of commercial agricultural development has made them redundant.

Productive resources are being increasingly developed by transnational corporations for the use and profit of industrial nations. And developing countries are being transformed into little more than labour reserves.

To suggest there is much security or hope in such an economy is an illusion. Only a systemic change, a society in which resources are more equitably apportioned, will be able to move beyond the Malthusian politics of population to a consideration of human reproductive rights and needs.-SUNS4720

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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