Marx and Malthus, maligned and misunderstood
True thinkers whose work is critical to a proper understanding of political economy, but, I would argue, to Christian political economy in particular, are these two giants of the 19th century between whom, ironically, no love was lost. But as their names continue to be dragged through the mud even today, I want to spend some time paying to both of them the homage they deserve, and clarifying from my own understanding what these two intellectual titans really said, and more importantly what they did NOT say, yet is commonly and meretriciously attributed to them.
We´ll start with Malthus, the simpler case. The term “Malthusian” has become a commonplace marker for any eugenics or depopulation project, be it never so heinous. Malthus’ actual basic thesis is really logically self-evident as I’ll shortly demonstrate, but even if the eugenicists of today accept it as their premise, we must in fairness to the good parson (yes, Thomas Malthus was a man of the cloth) ask whether he ever advocated any measures to forcibly reduce the population, or whether that might ever have occurred to him. The answer is NO. As a typical cleric, he certainly advocated sexual restraint for those who could not afford to feed additional children...this was the style at the time. But the idea of forcibly reducing population? Heavens no! After all, his entire work consisted of exposing how nature will do just that after a certain point, and this was not something he in any way celebrated, just something he was keen to exposit scientifically. So let’s take a look at his premise:
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It might be easiest to introduce Malthusian theory with an argument ad absurdum: Does planet Earth have a carrying capacity for an infinite population of homo sapiens? Certainly no one maintains this, and therefore this corollary necessarily follows: the ability of planet earth to support human life is limited. Limited by what? Essentially, argues Malthus, by the degree to which a population can keep itself nutrified and healthy; the obverse being famine, plague and like evils , along with human evils such as war, all of which constantly serve to cull the population until homeostasis between population and environment is once again reached. There is a constant dialectic, he might say, between population size and the food supply, the latter wholly constraining the former. A waggish satirical epitaph for Malthus went something like this:
Here lies poor Thomas Malthus
Alas, he is no more
For food supply grows 1,2,3
But people 1,2,4!
Stated mathematically, food supply grows according to arithmetical progression, but population grows in geometric progression. So population always tends to outpace food production, leading to the various catasrophes mentioned above. (The viciousness of this cycle has a parallel in Marx’s critique of capitalism, which we ‘ll shortly consider.)
Now moderns like to argue that Malthus’ premise has been effectively debunked by modern science, particularly in the area of industrialized agriculture, the increased use of fertilizers, and what came in the past century to be touted as the “Green Revolution.” But those who have been paying attention realize that these innovations did not come without cost. Not only is our food today less wholesome and nutrient dense as a result of these modern “scientific” farming methods, but in many cases it has been genetically modified so that it cannot even be called natural. Soil depletion, nitrogen runoff, sinking water tables, and a host of other serious problems have ensued from these agricultural practices. Have we really put paid to Malthus and fooled Mother Nature into giving humans a larger ecological niche, or is she now getting the last laugh? I entreat all readers to ignore the demonization of Thomas Malthus and any imputation to him of depopulation intent...it’s all hogwash. There are enough REAL eugenists and depopulation planners out there in the real world that we have no need to project their evil unto past thinkers. Malthus would blanche at the barbaric population-reduction schemes of the present to which his name is invariably attached by critics and votaries alike. We owe such great minds of the past as his far more respect than this. But no, the “woke” modern age will be the judge, prosecutor, jury and executioner of the reputations of men to whose great minds they cannot even hold a candle.
We’ll be returning to Malthus’ essential principles inl later writing because they raise issues that will sooner or later need to be addressed as we consider the arable land redistribution, the central plank of the reconstitution of the American Republic, that follows the spirit of the biblical Jubilee so essential to our recovenanting of America.
But for purposes of this essay, let’s now turn to the even more tragically maligned person of Karl Marx. Let me say at the outset that I do not consider Karl Marx or the totality of his work beyond criticism; there are aspects of his personal life and of his political writings, even of some of his theoretical conclusions, that invite scrutiny. But just as with Malthus, his essential thesis consists of an “inconvenient truth” which the ruling classes and the academics who serve them simply did not want to hear, and so both of these men have been seriously maligned ever since, maligned and, I would argue, deliberately misunderstood. This is why, let’s not forget, Karl Marx once quipped that he was “not a Marxist.” That should give all of his modern critics at least pause for thought before they continue this “castigation obligato.”
The essential argument of Marx, no less compelling in economics than is Malthus’ in the field of demographics, is that capitalism is a vicious process that can only lead, in the fullness of time, to the enrichment of a shrinking class of super-rich capitalists and the relative immiseration1 of an ever-expanding class of proletarians. Now the term “proletarians” is typically understood as a synonym for “workers,” and this is more or less the case, but the distinguishing feature of this class for Marx’s analysis is that they are “propertyless,” in the sense of not owning a significant amount of productive property, or “capital.” Today we tend to call über-rich capitalists “oligarchs,” and their spokesman in Davos, WEF chairman Karl Schwab, spouts to the rest of us that we “will own nothing, and be happy.” In other words, Marx’s prediction has come full circle, and Mr. Schwab is telling us we proletarians need to accept it lying down. That is the difference between us and our forebears: they resisted the dictatorship of capital in its heyday, whilst we acquiesce to it in its decadence, or so, in any case, do the mega-capitalists of today believe. We shall all see soon enough whether their assessment is valid…
There are many big lies told about Karl Marx today, so will only have time to deal with a few of the biggies. The horror story all too common amongst my friends on the Christian Right, and in petit bourgeois circles generally, is that everything was just fine in capitalism’s golden age until Karl Marx came along to set the workers against the beneficent capitalists, and that Marx wanted to do away with the free market and impose a “Communist” dictatorship that would replace it. Failing to obtain the needed support of the proletariat, followers of Marx naturally turned to cultural subversion as a way to change society. Marx was an evil dude, who spawned all the social problems we have today.
But this saga turns Marx upside down, completely so.2 In point of fact, Marx does not invent the class struggle, he exposes it as the underlying dynamic of capitalist society. The major error that Rightist critics of Marx make is conflating their beloved “free enterprise” and “free market” principles with “capitalism.” History has demonstrated that in fact capitalism and the free market are only fair weather friends. Proletarians have cause enough to fear the “free market” so long as it includes a “labor market” in which they are forced to compete with one another for wages on which there is ever greater downward pressure. (Biden’s “open borders” policy are a modern instance of how this pressure can be amplified.) But capitalists, too, fear it because the very process their vicious system sets in motion decreases the ability of larger population to purchase the products of industry, as consumer-power continually concentrates at the top of the capitalist hierarchy, creating what Marx calls the “crisis of capitalism,” or what conventional economists call “the boom-bust cycle.” So one by one these industries began overriding the free market through establishing virtual monopolies (or conglomerates) in the productive sector, and then a kind of monopsony in the public, or state sector. In other words, instead of the classical model of industry producing and then offering its wares to independent consumers, the government uses pooled revenues from the public to purchase large qualities of this product supposedly on behalf of the public. We first witnessed this in the emergence of the military-industrial complex, but lately it has been even more apparent in the pharmaceutical industry, where medicines and particularly vaccines (especially Covid 19 “vaccines”) are purchased in large quantity by the government even before they are safety-tested or scientifically validated. All of this demonstrates how little capitalists care for a “free market.” They much prefer this type of what Marx called “bourgeois socialism,” and in the modern age is generally referred to as “corporatism” or “fascism.” It is a dictatorship, not of the proletariat, as envisioned by Marx, but by Big Business (the “haut bourgeoisie” in Marx’s lexicon).
We’ll deal with one more lie before closing – this business of cultural subversion as a methodology of forcing social change. In Marx’s view, cultural institutions are essentially reducible to external manifestations of the arrangement of a society’s productive forces, or of relations to the means of production. The question here is not whether this “materialist” stance of Marx is as valid or as universally applicable as he argued, but only that, methodologically speaking, the idea of trying to change the social order through attacking its cultural “superstructure” would, to Marx, be the equivalent of shadow-boxing. Marx would certainly argue that no matter what you do to culture, if the underlying economic structure of a society is not altered, these same cultural manifestations will simply re-emerge, because they are not in any way causa sui, but rather outward manifestations of economic structure. To put it simply, it would be an exercise in futility, a tilting at windmills. So the very real efforts to transmogrify Western culture today, the so-called “woke” movement and the like, cannot conceivably be termed “cultural Marxism” because the term itself is an oxymoron! It is true enough that Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School spawned much of the intellectual (using this term generously) framework for this approach, and that they claimed to have had socialist sympathies, but did they in any way follow Marx’s line of thinking in these matters? No, they reversed the line of march from revamping economic structure (ownership of the means of production) to attempting to transform what Marx claimed were essentially only static reflections of that structure, leaving its economic foundations intact.
We would have enough energy to power the world for centuries if we could harness the motion of Marx’s and Malthus’ corpses turning over in their graves with every falsehood attributed to them, and every false aspersion cast against them, in direct contradiction to what they actually believed and wrote. But instead, let’s clean up our intellectual acts by resurrecting the actual work and thinking of these 19th century giants on whose shoulders we will have to stand to establish a Christian political economy. Marx demonstrated for all time that capitalism (which, to repeat, must not in any way be confounded with “free enterprise” or the “free market”) is the cause of the social problem, it therefore cannot serve as the solution. If my friends in the Christian conservative movement do not come to terms with this, the Great Spiritual Awakening they champion will find no durable, sustainable, morally acceptable expression, at least, not for them. Malthus, for his part, is the pioneer of demographic regulation. Though the problem of keeping population within limits that will not tempt Nature to show a restraining hand cannot be solved within a capitalist (or any other socially inequitable) paradigm, we must be willing to face the hard fact that this is a moral question to which humanity must find a humane, sustainable solution, hopefully sooner rather than later. A truly Christian political economy will take both of these human social problems very seriously and put its best minds to work on morally resolving them. Those who continue to so unfairly demonize Marx and Malthus are playing a variation of the “blame the victim” game, a form of denial unworthy of any follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who promises that it is the truth that shall set us free.
1The term “relative” is an important qualifier. Though there was considerable destitution amongst proletarians in Marx’s time, Marx takes pains to distinguish relative from absolute impoverishment. The proletariat of a given country, if organized both syndically and politically, can garner sufficient concessions from the capitalist class, temporarily at least, to lift itself out of absolute poverty, but in fine, its relative share of social wealth will continue to decrease relative to that of the capitalist class, notwithstanding.
2Wags might say, “Well, it’s only fair. After all, didn’t Marx admit that he ‘turned Hegel on his head’ in order to convert Hegel’s idealist dialectic into his own “materialist dialectic?” Well, Hegel is another figure of the past who has been demonized in the modern age, and in much the same way that Marx has been, but that’s a topic for another day. The point here is that our aim here is not poetic justice, but intellectual integrity. There is no worse intellectual sin than holding a writer responsible for the opposite of what he actually says!
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