In ecosocialist debates on Marx and Malthus

I repost here my part in a debate on the ecosocialist list and in Climate and Capitalism:

Sarkar’s confused defense of Malthus’s capitalist ideology

July 4, 2011

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 atdmitryev.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
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