Revolution or War n°11

(Biannual - February 2019)

PDF - 516.6 kb

HomeVersion imprimable de cet article Version imprimable

On the Ideological Role of Neo-Malthusianism

In recent years there has been a revival of a neo-Malthusian ideology, which serves the ruling class as weapon against the proletariat. It is being used to justify the imposition of austerity measures on the grounds that the “comfortable” standard of living (i.e. sufficient purchasing power to obtain the necessities of dignified existence such as food and electricity) of sections of the proletariat of the developed world places an unsustainable strain on the biosphere and threatens the long-term survival of the species. A real problem – the destruction of the natural environment upon which the existence of humanity depends – is thus explained in a mystified manner, that the human population as a whole bears equal responsibility. The purpose of this mystification is to hide the fact that it is the obsolescence of capitalism that threatens humanity with war and ecological destruction, and thus to protect the privileges of the capitalist class and its parasitic existence. This whole exercise requires a shameful degree of intellectual dishonesty. It is therefore no surprise that the apologists of the ruling class today so adore that “bought advocate, a pleader on behalf of their [the proletariat’s] enemies, a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes [1], parson Malthus.

The transition of capitalism from its historically progressive phase, in relation to feudalism, to its current phase of historical obsolescence demanded also an ideological transformation. While in the 19th century bourgeois economists such as Ricardo could to an extent be impartial in their arguments, because this allowed them for example to demonstrate the regressive role played by the landed aristocracy, this is no longer the case today. According to Marx, whereas Ricardo desired production for production’s sake and saw its revolutionizing potential, Malthus used scientifically established premises to come to conclusions that were acceptable either to the aristocracy or to both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat and only desired capitalist production inasmuch as it could provide a comfortable existence for the most reactionary and parasitic parts of the ruling classes, namely the aristocracy and their lackeys in the Church.

“Ricardo disinterestedly defends bourgeois production insofar as it [stands for] as unbridled a development as possible of the social forces of production. He is unmoved with the fate of the agents of production (...) He maintained the historical validity and necessity of this stage of development (...). Malthus wants bourgeois production insofar as it is not revolutionary, insofar as it is not a historical force, but merely creates a broader and more convenient basis for the “old society” (idem).

Now that the historically revolutionary role of capitalism has been exhausted, apparent impartiality with regard to the historical development of society is no longer admissible. Neither is an attachment to objectivity and materialism. While a consequent materialism is tolerated when its application is narrow, indispensable as it is in science and technology where it allows the production of marketable commodities and increasing labour productivity, its application is avoided when it comes to studying society as a whole because the conclusion that would be drawn would be that capitalist development represents a transient period in history that, while necessary for creating the material means for a society of material abundance, ultimately cannot rationally dispose of these means, i.e. it cannot unleash the full productive potential of humanity to satisfy human needs - which it is technically possible to do in a way that simultaneously protects the natural environment - enslaved as it is to the motive of accumulation of capital. Therefore, while modern society has science it is not truly scientific. Science is completely dominated by capitalism and is tolerated only within narrow limits. Outside of these limits, i.e. when it comes to understanding the material and social relations that are at the basis of society as a whole, bourgeois ideologues have no recourse other than subjectivism and reification.

Reification refers to the tendency on the part of bourgeois economists and ideologues to transform social, institutional, and class relations into universal categories and eternal natural laws. This tendency is typical of intellectual activity under the capitalist mode of production. Bourgeois ideologues work in a way that is directly opposite to actual historical development; they assume capitalist social categories as given, as the premise for historical development, and then deduce historical development from these premises, which are supposed to have existed eternally as natural laws. Thus, Malthus sees widespread poverty, misery, disease, unhealthy working conditions, and argues that these are the result of a natural law that drives all life to reproduce faster than the pace of growth of agricultural output or, in its modern version, beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystem upon which we depend. These undesirable social phenomena, which are the concrete results of capitalist social relations, are transformed into the lamentable but ultimately beneficial consequence of a natural law - unrestrained population growth - that characterizes all living beings. Under Marx’s withering critique, "Malthus’s famous natural principle of population finds the place it deserves: it is a variable effect, the cause being the economic conditions of each specific mode of production". [2]However, reification must not be reduced merely to an incorrect perception of reality. It serves a definite purpose for the ruling class. If one accepts that society is organized according to eternal laws of human nature one essentially adopts a fatalistic attitude that very well suits the ruling class; it is possible to change socially determined laws, but you cannot change eternal natural laws.

While for Malthus the existence of a surplus population is the result of the natural law that compels all living beings to reproduce beyond a level that the system that they depend on can support, the Marxian understanding of surplus population is tied to the concept of the reserve army of labour. The ongoing refinement, driven by the need to increase productivity and profitability, of industrial technologies and the growth in automation is part of a process that changes the organic composition of capital, or the ratio of constant to variable capital, in favour of constant capital. As production becomes more capital intensive, many workers are made redundant and contribute to the swelling of the ranks of the unemployed, exerting a downward pressure on wages and changing the type of jobs that are available in that industry. This has the simultaneous effect of removing capital’s ultimate source of profit, labour, from the production process, as well as impoverishing the domestic “consumers” and therefore diminishing the ability of the domestic market to absorb what has been produced. This whole process and the contradictions that are inherent to it, including the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, depend on private ownership of the means of production, production for exchange, and the law of value.

Malthus’ “mistake” is not an innocent one. Ideology is not just an empirically incorrect point of view, but a mystification that serves the objective interests of a ruling class (in the historical setting in which he existed this was the rentier class) and that has a material force. It is in this context that we can interpret Malthus’ prescriptions to “solve the population problem”: increasing the production of luxury goods at the expense of food and other consumables to discourage the impoverished masses from proliferating, as well as creating situations that enable welcome increases in death rates, while at the same time preaching moral restraint.


Malthus argued for the need for a class of unproductive consumers, for “buyers who are not sellers”, to provide a market for the capitalists to realize their profits by selling the commodities they produce at their value. This included the non-productive classes such as landowners, parsons, the clergy, etc. This argument was meant to prove to the capitalists that they needed the non-productive class to which Malthus belonged. However, Malthus does not explain how these buyers acquired the means to act as buyers, “... how they must first take away from the capitalists a portion of their product without furnishing an equivalent in order to buy back less than an equivalent with what they have thus taken away [3]. Nevertheless, despite the transparently stupid and self-serving nature of this argument, there is a notable parallel between it and the Keynesian proposals for state intervention into the business cycle, either by manipulating the interest rate to favour investment or through more direct means of increasing aggregate demand such as through state purchasing. We can add to this the proposal for a universal basic income. It is all about creating effective demand. Little matter that a peaceful way out of the crisis is doomed to failure because it is the very operation of capital accumulation that guarantees overproduction or, what amounts to the same, underconsumption. The main thing is to create the illusion of a way out of the contradictions of capitalism that is still within the framework of capitalism.

Beginning with Keynes and his followers, the bourgeoisie have sought to re-purpose Malthus’s ideas, to transform them from being advocacy for the parasitic and regressive rentier class in the context of the ascendancy of capitalism into an argument for the welfare state and an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism during the period of capitalism’s decadence. Moreover, Malthusianism and its modern form respectively served and continue to serve as an apology for misery and starvation. It is by adapting Malthus’s argumentation that the Economist in 1848 justified allowing Irish peasants to starve [4]. Similar to Malthus, the Economist, the voice par excellence of the British bourgeoisie, argued that starvation, while unfortunate, is ultimately necessary because it acts as a check on unrestrained population growth.

The failure of Malthusian thought to account for the rate of increase of agricultural yields, or his demonstrably false view that a higher living standard is causally linked to a greater population growth rate, rather than leading to a rejection of Malthus’s views have instead led to their adaptation and modernization in the form of neo-Malthusianism, which ties the growth of the human population to the destruction of the biosphere. While before, Malthus considered the relationship between population growth and increases in crop yields, which he supposed would not keep up population growth, neo-Malthusians use the concept of the carrying capacity of the biosphere to argue that it is necessary to reduce human population. How this reduction is achieved varies from the more benign recommendations to borderline genocidal ones. The mistake of the neo-Malthusians, of course, is to view the impact of the human population on the biosphere as dependent mainly on the size of that population, without taking into account the mode of production of society, which determines how humanity interacts with nature and therefore the impact that it has on it.

Technical solutions to environmental degradation and climate change do exist. Devices have been demonstrated that can physically remove CO2 from the atmosphere, acting essentially as artificial plants. If several hundred million such devices were produced and distributed around the globe, it would be possible to globally regulate the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. For comparison, in 2017 an estimated 73.5 million automobiles were produced. If capitalist society has the capacity produce hundreds of millions of cars in the span of a few years, that capacity put to rational use, which is only possible under communism, could enable solving the problem of human-caused climate change. In addition, methods have been proposed to increase albedo and, in that way, reduce global average temperature.

Given these potential technical solutions to ecological degradation, does a “Green New Deal” perhaps represent simultaneously a way out of the crisis and a way to remediate the environment, all without having to overcome capitalism? If Britain could spend around 50% of its GDP on its military during the First and Second World Wars, would not a similar commitment to tackle climate change be possible? Don’t hold your breath. The reason that the capitalists would much rather invest in armaments than major infrastructure projects is because there is a prospect of renewed capital accumulation after a major war. Military spending is not waste spending from the point of view of the bourgeoisie [5] , whereas a Green New Deal would be.

Effectively, neo-Malthusianism serves to cover up the failure of capitalism to satisfy human needs as well as its total lack of perspective for the future, justifying poverty and austerity on the grounds that we are overburdening the Earth as a result of an inherent biological drive to proliferate, rather than as a result of the inability of capital to find profitable investment opportunities in the satisfaction of human needs. Keynes argued that it is possible to reach an equilibrium point at which there would be full employment, but the only circumstances under which that has been the case have been the world wars. Combining our impressive technical capacity with the mass of humanity that capitalism discards as a surplus population – traps in slums, and creates arguments to justify its elimination through genocide or starvation – for the purpose of providing universal access to basic necessities to every human being on the planet as well as to remediate the natural environment, would certainly allow us to attain these ends. In a communist society, a fraction of the resources that are squandered by imperialism every year on preparing for generalized world war would suffice to provide every human being with access to sanitation, water, electricity, internet, education, quality food, and leisure. .

It is none other than our outdated and harmful mode of production, which threatens to unleash war of an unprecedented scale of destruction, that prevents this from happening. The separation of the world into antagonistic nation states, the anarchic nature of production, and the contradiction between the socialized character of production and the private appropriation of the product, prevent coherent technical solutions to the ecological problem from being implemented or even seriously considered. Control of the climate becomes an inter-imperialist stake as different national bourgeoisies will prefer the global thermostat to be set at different temperatures depending on their particular interests.

As a species, we are not even close to the limits of population that the Earth could plausibly support. Food could be produced in a way that recirculates water, reducing water consumption by 95%. Energy could be obtained from nuclear fission and solar power, including by putting solar power collectors in space. Most of the material we would need, including volatiles and metals, could be obtained in space in much greater quantity than on Earth. But while a material possibility, this cannot happen within the framework of capitalism, in which every technical and scientific advancement serves imperialism above all else. For the technical capacity to be deployed to its fullest potential towards rational and collectively decided ends, the capitalist mode of production must be overcome. In the event that this obsolete mode of production persists, it will generate misery on a progressively greater scale and pose a risk to the long term survival of the human species.

What is clear is that there are no solutions to the problems created by capitalism that are purely technical, independent of class interests that are at play. Practically, the prerequisite for implementing the technical solutions to environmental degradation and food insecurity on a scale that is of consequence is the conscious abolition of capitalist social relations. Despite the utopian illusions in the possibility of an ecologically sound capitalism, in North America often seen as resulting from a large number of ethical individual purchase decisions or perhaps a Green New Deal, the only social force capable of fundamentally changing society is the one that daily reproduces it, the international proletariat. 

By asserting its class interests, the proletariat simultaneously resists the drive to imperialist war and through its struggle gains consciousness of the objective historical need to abolish capitalism, opening the perspective of a society in which collective human ingenuity can be devoted exclusively to satisfaction of human needs while stewarding the natural environment.

Stavros, January 2019



[1Marx (1861-1863) Economic Manuscripts: Theories of Surplus Value.

[2Dangeville, 1978

[3Marx (1861-1863) Economic Manuscripts: Theories of Surplus Value. As cited above.

[4...the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience.

[5Paul Mattick. Marx and Keynes. Page 137-138.