The ongoing appeal of this ‘libel against the human race’

The ongoing appeal of this ‘libel against the human race’

The reason why such an army of present-day miserabilists are drawn to the gloomy reverend has far more to do with Malthus’s thorough-going social pessimism than his supposed laws of population growth.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

Lisping, reclusive and reviled by the working class of his day, the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) – the man behind the idea that the ‘lower orders of society’ breed too quickly – would probably be surprised by his current popularity. Because that’s what he is today: popular. Commentators, activists and academics positively fall over themselves in the rush to say, ‘you know what, that Malthus had a point. There are too many people and, what’s more, they are consuming far too much.’

Earlier this summer, a columnist for Time magazine was in no doubt as to the pastor’s relevance. The global population is ‘ever larger, ever hungrier’, he noted, ‘food prices are near historic highs’ and ‘every report of drought or flooding raises fears of global shortages’. ‘Taking a look around us today’, he continued, ‘it would be easy to conclude that Malthus was prescient’. Writing in the British weekly, the New Statesman, wildlife lover Sir David Attenborough was similarly convinced: ‘The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.’ Not to be outdone, the liberal-left’s favourite broadsheet, the Guardian, also suggested that Malthus may have been right after all: ‘[His] arguments were part of the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and they have validity in the natural world. On the savannah, in the rainforests, and across the tundra, animal populations explode when times are good, and crash when food reserves are exhausted. Is homo sapiens an exception?’ The melancholy tone whispered its answer in the negative. Writing in the New York Times, Paul Krugman was less coy: ‘Malthus was right!’ shouted the headline.

Given the encomia that are currently coming the way of Malthus you may well wonder what exactly it was that he was meant to be right about. To find the answer to this it is worth actually taking a look at the work, first published in 1798, on which his supposed prescience is based: An Essay on the Principle of Population. It makes for surprising reading.

Sure enough, within the first few pages, we do encounter what has been taken to be Malthus’s theory of population growth. In this, Malthus claims to be dealing with what he calls two ‘fixed laws of nature’, the need for food and the ‘passion between the sexes’, or procreation. The problem, as Malthus sees it, is that population ‘when unchecked’ grows faster than the means to support it (or as he calls this latter category, ‘the means of subsistence’). He even ascribes different mathematical titles to the rate of population growth and the rate at which we develop the means of subsistence: ‘[Population] increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.’ That is, population doubles every 25 years (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc) ‘when unchecked’, whereas subsistence merely grows additively every 25 years (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), etc. And of course, if you take this as true, if you accept that population will always, ‘when unchecked’, outstrip the development of the means to support it, then Malthus will indeed seem ‘right’. Not only that, Malthus’s vice-and-misery checks on population, from socially enforced restraint to population-induced catastrophe, might well seem incredibly prescient. In this regard, a famous passage is worth quoting in full:

‘The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind [eg, wars for resources] are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep of their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population.’

You can almost hear contemporary misery merchants trilling their approval. You’ve got wars for resources, you’ve got pandemics, you’ve got famine… Indeed, virtually every cataclysm, every End of Man is there, forecast in Malthus’s pulpit prose. No wonder environmentalists sidle up to Malthus’s corpse to whisper their approval: ‘You knew all along that nature would take its necessary revenge unless humans, breeding like rabbits, stopped consuming so damned much.’

But what’s strange about reading Malthus’s actual text is that the ‘imperious all-pervading law of nature’ he outlines – that nature will check population growth if humans don’t implement checks themselves – takes up just a few paragraphs of a work over 120 pages long. In fact, he barely bothers to justify his assertion that population grows geometrically while the means of subsistence expand arithmetically. His sole source for his relentless assertion about population growth seems to be ‘Dr [Richard] Price’s two volumes of Observations’, a 1776 treatise on civil liberty which featured factoids about population growth in the New England colonies during the seventeenth century – ‘when the power of population was left to exert itself with perfect freedom’. As for his assertions about the development of the means of subsistence, there are admittedly a few sketchy paragraphs on the transition between hunter-gather societies and agricultural ones. But beyond that, nothing.

That Malthus’s actual ‘theory of population’ is, by any standard, groundless at least explains why it was vitiated by subsequent history. Because, make no mistake, Malthus has never ceased to be wrong. Not only did population not expand to anything like the ‘geometric’ degree he outlined, but more importantly, the technological developments of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the agricultural, ‘green’ revolution of the twentieth century showed that our ability to support a growing population can, as it were, leap forward. The ‘arithmetic’ rate at which we develop the means of subsistence proved to be what it always was – an arbitrary assertion.

Yet, the flimsy nature of Malthus’s supposed laws of population growth should not be surprising. Why would they be anything else? After all, Malthus was never really interested in producing a work of demography. Even the bits he does produce were ripped off, either from Giammaria Ortes (1713-1790) or from Richard Price’s (1723-1791) work, to which he refers at any point he needs something as solid as a fact. What Malthus really wanted to produce was a refutation of social reform, or worse still, revolution.

Take a look at the full title of his essay: An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M Condorcet, and Other Writers. His subject was not so much the principle of population growth – this Malthus was happy to take for granted, hence the scant attention he actually paid to justifying it. Rather, his real purpose was the extent to which a supposed law of population would confound those writers like Godwin and Condorcet who advocated social transformation. The theory, the so-called science, was always subservient to Malthus’s main objective of justifying the social order as it is. As Malthus himself wrote: ‘The principal argument of this Essay only goes to prove the necessity of a class of proprietors, and a class of labourers.’ Malthus was not pessimistic about the chances of improving society because of his theory of population – that is the wrong way round. His wilful social pessimism, where misery was the lot of the majority, inspired his theory of population.

A member of the landed gentry – although being the youngest son he was without an estate – Malthus did have every reason to feel insecure. In the towns and cities of late-eighteenth-century England, the industrial bourgeoisie was emerging, much to the anxiety of a bedraggled, landed aristocrat like Malthus. This is why Malthus rejects the labour theory of value developed by David Ricardo and Adam Smith in favour of land and agriculture as the only true source of value. And on what basis? Because ‘the healthy labours of agriculture’, as opposed to the ‘unhealthy occupations of manufacturing industry’, produce things people really, really need – or, if you prefer, the means to subsist. ‘It is with some view to the real utility of the produce’, Malthus cautions, ‘that we ought to extricate the productiveness and unproductiveness of different sorts of labour’. In fact, so keen was Malthus to justify the leisured existence of the landed aristocracy, and the decidedly unleisurely existence of all who till the fields for her, that he remarks with a stunning lack of prescience that: ‘By encouraging the industry of the towns more than the industry of the country, Europe may be said, perhaps, to have brought on a premature old age.’

But before that which really terrifies Malthus – the prospect of social revolt – his disagreements with the industrial bourgeoisie melt away. For the chief fear that stalks his eternal ‘class of proprietors’, his necessary ‘administrators of property’, already has a palpable shape in the French Revolution. This, remember, was a period in which the army was semi-permanently stationed in the north of England, a time when Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was banned and burned, an era when habeas corpus was suspended. Urgency marked Malthus’s animus towards both the Jacobin threat and embryonic working-class discontent. This ‘tremendous phenomenon in the political horizon, the French Revolution’, he writes in chapter one, ‘like a blazing comet, seems destined either to inspire with fresh life and vigour, or to scorch up and destroy the shrinking inhabitants of the earth’. If that sounds like Malthus might have been potentially enthusiastic about events in France, don’t be mistaken. He later likens it to bad horticulture: ‘In a similar manner, the forcing manure used to bring about the French Revolution, and to give greater freedom and energy to the human mind, has burst the calyx of humanity, the restraining bond of all society…’ Malthus’s Essay is nothing less than a dam against those forces, then inchoate in English society, pushing to burst the calyx of society as it was then constituted.

Malthus did this, of course, by invoking his putative ‘fixed laws of nature’, namely, that we procreate more rapidly than we develop the means of subsistence, therefore casting a superfluous populace into unemployment and penury. What this allowed Malthus to do was to present social problems, such as the miserable impoverishment of the labouring and, indeed, non-labouring poor, not as social problems susceptible to social, not to mention, political solutions, but as problems resulting from the ‘fixed laws of nature’. This he argues is the error of William Godwin who, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), naively believes that ‘human institutions’, such as ‘political regulations and the established administration of property’, are the ‘sources of evil’. While the political arrangement and private property may appear to be the ‘obtrusive causes of much mischief to mankind’, counters Malthus, ‘they are mere feathers that float on the surface, in comparison with those deeper seated causes of impurity that corrupt the springs and render turbid the whole stream of human life’.

Those ‘deeper seated causes’ of the misery in human life are, of course, matters of nature: the poor are having more children than society can feed. Such are the natural limits to the number of people a society can support in comfort, continues Malthus, that ‘it is not in the nature of things that [the lower classes of mankind] can be awarded such a quantity of money or subsistence as will allow them all to marry early, in the full confidence that they shall be able to provide with ease for a numerous family’.

Malthus’s aim should be clear enough. He was always seeking to justify the late-eighteenth-century status quo by transforming a historically determinate society into a fact of nature. Society was as it ought to be and could be no other way. For the ‘race of labourers’, as Malthus tellingly refers to the working class, to raise themselves up to the material level of, presumably, the ‘race of proprietors’, would be to exceed natural limits. There simply is not enough to support everyone in the style the landed gentry had become accustomed to. Malthus argues instead that it is far better that an impoverished labourer, who is at full liberty to dispose of his body, ‘the only property he possesses’, simply accepts the ‘amicable exchange’ between himself and those purchasing his ‘only property’ as a natural social relation, a social relation that reflects the necessary restraints of a finite amount of resources. Not everyone can be rich. Malthus paints a positively idyllic portrait of this ‘amicable exchange’: ‘The poor man walks erect in conscious independence; and the mind of this employer is not vitiated by a sense of power.’

Of course, Malthus does also have to justify the leisured existence of the unproductive classes to which he so keenly aspires. After all, why should a select few enjoy the fruits of mass labour, while others toil in famished misery? Luckily Malthus has recourse to simple snobbery. If given a greater means to consume, the ‘race of labourers’ would only spend even more time in the ‘ale house’, he argues, before no doubt enjoying an inebriated liaison, and adding yet a greater weight to an already burdensome population. The labourer’s life is simply not conducive to the cultivation of higher pursuits, Malthus continues. ‘The principal argument of this essay tends to place in a strong point of view the improbability that the lower classes of people in any country should ever be sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement.’

And what of people like himself? What of the propertied and the privileged? What of the leisured and unproductive? Malthus responds that it is only because of the ‘self love’ of the rich, the ‘established administration of property’, that there exists ‘the noblest exertions of human genius, all the finer and more delicate emotions of the soul… everything, indeed, that distinguishes the civilised from the savage state. And no sufficient change has as yet taken place in the nature of civilised man’, Malthus continues, ‘to enable us to believe that he either is, or ever will be, in a state when he may safely throw down the ladder by which he has risen to eminence’.

The Essay is at the very least a striking attempt to smother society as it then was in amber, to fix it permanently in time. The forces that would revolutionise society, from the burgeoning industrial bourgeoisie to the incipient class consciousness of the proletariat, threaten Malthus’s world on either side. He wants to hold these social forces back, to paint them as tending against the natural order of things. This was what was always animating the essay, not some scholarly concern with population growth and agricultural productivity: a desire to render society, in all its vice and misery, as the product of the laws of nature. The Essay was a stunning work of reaction, a desperate rear-guard move from a man who, at some level, knew the tide of history was rushing against him. For there is nothing more desperate than blaming hunger and want on the excessive breeding of the ‘race of labourers’.

No wonder Malthus was despised by the working class. In September 1825, for instance, while taking aim at the growing coterie of Malthusians, who sought to blame the miseries of the working class on the working class itself, the editors of the Trades Newspaper penned a deliciously sardonic riposte: ‘If Messrs Malthus, M’Cullock, Place and Co are to be believed, the working classes have only to consider how they can most effectually restrict their numbers, in order to arrive at a complete solution of all their difficulties… Malthus and Co… would reduce the whole matter to a question between Mechanics and their sweethearts and wives [rather than] a question between the employed and their employers.’ (1)

Malthus was to have his revenge. His last act, before he died in 1834 annointed as the world’s first professor of political economy, was to help with the 1834 amendment to the Poor Law Act. Since the original Poor Law Act in 1601, any unemployed man could expect his local parish to provide him with just enough relief to prevent him from starving to death. Malthus, however, had never been keen on this type of aid. As far as he was concerned, by doling out money to the poor, local parishes were not only encouraging ‘idleness and dissipation’, they were also encouraging the poor to breed by removing the check of poverty. The 1834 amendment to the Poor Law Act thus replaced the relief of money and provisions with the relief of immediate entry into workhouses, the ‘Poor Law Bastilles’, as they were then known. As Friedrich Engels, himself no fan of the original Poor Law, was to argue in 1844, ‘these Malthusian Commissioners [concluded] that poverty is a crime [of excessive breeding]’ and proceeded to treat the poor ‘with the most revolting cruelty’ (2). Such was the logical consequence of a theory which valued human life so little that certain numbers of people could be deemed superfluous.

The forms in which Malthus has been revived today are no less vicious, however. From the naturalisation of social limits so prevalent in environmentalism, to the tendency to lecture the globablised ‘race of labourers’ in the developing world on their reproductive habits, one thing remains clear: just as it was in Karl Marx’s day, Malthusianism continues to be a ‘libel against the human race’.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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