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An essay on the principle of population analysis

Martha E. Gimenez
University of Colorado
Revised version of a paper presented at the Pacific Sociological Association Meeting in Honolulu, April 1971. Published in Den Ny Verden (Journal of the Institute for Development Research), Copenhagen, Denmark, December 1973.

It has currently become fashionable to argue that excessive population growth stands in the way of economic growth and that underdeveloped countries should take measures to reduce their rates of natural increase. Population growth appears today as THE major factor determining underdevelopment and population control is advocated as the most urgent and necessary step if development is to be eventually achieved.

Within the context of the developed countries it is argued that their pressing problems such as urban blight, crime, pollution, environmental deterioration, etc. would have greater possibilities of being satisfactorily solved if population growth were to be curtailed.

Abstractly considered, the relationship between scarce resources and a continuously increasing population turns the arguments in favor of population control into "self-evident truths" which can only be rejected by the unthinking and the dogmatic. From a Marxist viewpoint, such "self-evident truths" are but reifications of concrete historical, social, political, and economic relations which should be taken into account if the population issue is to be at all understood. Just as in the 18th century the English ruling classes fought the impact of the French Revolution with military and ideological weapons among which Malthus' "Essay on Population" was perhaps the most important, today the ruling classes are bringing back the Malthusian argument in an effort to increase their control over the growing number of the dispossessed. Like Malthus, contemporary socio-economic theorists view excessive population rather than social institutions and social relations as the main source and barrier to the solution of social problems. It is, therefore, the purpose of this paper to present an Marxist critique and a Marxist alternative to the Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian approaches to the study of population. While a complete Marxist theory of population under conditions of capitalist production remains to be developed, some guidelines for the pursuit of a Marxist analysis of population are provided.

Malthus' argument rests upon two propositions; unchecked population increases in a geometrical ration while subsistence increases in an arithmetical ratio. The two propositions together constitute the famous principle of population which, according to Malthus, is ". one of the causes that have hitherto impeded the progress of mankind towards happiness" (Malthus, 1933:5). This cause is "intimately united with the very nature of man. (it) is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it" (Malthus, 1933:5); ". its natural and necessary effects (are). a very considerable portion of that vice and misery, and of that unequal distribution of the bounties of nature which it has been the unceasing object of the enlightened philanthropists in all ages to correct" (Malthus, 1933:5).

The constant operation of the principle of population brings about the operation of the law of necessity. The outcome is "much of that poverty and misery observable among the lower classes of people in every nation, and those reiterated failures in the efforts of the higher classes to relieve them" (Malthus, 1933:1).

Malthus also brings support to his theory in the law of diminishing returns the implication of which is that food production is bound to lag behind population growth. This law provides him with the most general theoretical basis for his principle of population and constitutes the basic argument with which Neo-Malthusian thought addresses itself to population problems today. Thus, according to contemporary thought about this matter, not only food production but every natural resource is bound to lag behind population growth.

Marx and Engels reacted very strongly against Malthus' population theory which they saw as an apology for the status quo and all throughout their work they referred to Malthus in a very ironic and disdainful manner. Leaving aside the superficial aspect of their criticism, in looking at their scientific critical statements it is possible to distinguish two levels of analysis.
  1. At the most general theoretical level Marx and Engels see in Malthus' principle of population another instance of the way in which bourgeois economists reify social relations.

Malthus begins "post festum indeed, with the results of the process of capitalist development before him; i.e. widespread poverty, hunger, unemployment, etc. and, disregarding the concrete social relations of exploitation and competition which had produced that hungry and unemployed population, he views it as the outcome of the operation of inexorable natural laws. He reifies the specific relations of exploitation which obtained at that time between wage workers and capitalists, and the antagonistic relations between the landed and the industrial interests, changing them into the operation of the natural law of necessity that manifests itself through positive checks to population growth. Poverty, unwholesome working conditions, hunger, disease, unemployment, etc. are depicted as the product of the natural law of necessity which in that way checks the functioning of another natural law; the tendency of all animated life to reproduce itself beyond the means of subsistence.

The accumulation and expansion of capital constitutes the driving force of capitalism and it becomes possible only as long as capitalists can operate with a profit. Profits originate in the appropriation, by the capitalist, of the surplus value produced by the labor power he buys. Accumulation takes place when capitalists convert a portion of their surplus value into capital; this allows them to expand, to appropriate more surplus value which will lead to further accumulation and expansion and so on.

The process of accumulation implies also a process of increase in the demand for labor. As an increase in the demand of any commodity produces an increase in the price of that commodity, in this specific case, accumulation leads to an increase in the value of labor power above its natural value (that is, the wages which assure the worker a minimum level of subsistence). The consequences of such increase would be to narrow the gap between the amount invested in labor power and the value of the output produced by labor power. In other words, there would be a reduction or even a disappearance of the surplus value.

In actual practice, wages tend to rise together with capital accumulation but they never rise enough to endanger the system itself. For the classical economists and for Malthus in particular, the mechanism that kept wages equal to the "natural" price of labor power is embodies in the principle of population. When wages are high, workers over-reproduce themselves. The consequent population increase produces a supply of labor larger than the demand and wages fall to their natural price. As this natural price only gives to the workers a minimum level of subsistence, the only way in which workers can improve their condition is by controlling their numbers thereby raising the price of labor. Poverty and unemployment are, therefore, only the result of the workers' natural propensity to reproduce beyond the available means of subsistence.

Marx rejects the Malthusian solution to the problems created by the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system. In the process of capital accumulation the composition of capital does not remain constant; it changes and it is this change which is most important to understand the effect of capital accumulation and expansion upon the working population.

This is the general law of capital accumulation; the appropriation and accumulation of surplus value in the hands of the capitalist class leads to the poverty of those who are precisely the source of that surplus value. In other words, capital accumulation unavoidably leads to the unemployment of a sector of the available labor force. Unemployment, as inherent feature of the capitalist mode of production, means the constant presence of a "relative surplus population" or "reserve army of labor" whose size and composition will vary with the concrete needs of capital accumulation within the context of any given social formation where the capitalist mode of production may prevail.

Marx's analysis shows that population is the dependent variable. Whenever the reserve army of labor is relatively depleted and the level of wages tends to rise reducing the rate of surplus value, the capitalist class will adopt measures (i.e. technological improvements, foreign investments, etc.) which, while increasing the productivity of labor and the rate of profit, will render obsolete a number of jobs.

Therefore, the validity of the principle of the reserve army of labor is linked to the permanence of the capitalist mode of production. Each stage in the development of the capitalist system modifies the operation of the principle and its empirical manifestations at the level of concrete social formations in a historically specific manner which can be theoretically elaborated and empirically tested.

Today, in the stage of monopoly capital, imperialism and consolidation of the world capitalist system, a Marxist analysis of population should elucidate the effects upon population structure and processes of the principle of the reserve army of labor and the other mechanisms with which the capitalist economy attempts to counteract its inherent fundamental contradiction: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The production of a reserve army of labor is the most important mechanism at the level of analysis of the mode of production. Its explanatory value in a concrete historical situation must be determined taking into consideration the effect upon its size and composition of the other mechanisms; i.e. increasing intensity of exploitation, reduction of wages below the value of labor power, cheapening the elements of constant capital, foreign trade, and the increase of stock capital (Marx, 1970a:232-240).

Malthus' claim that "effective demand" was needed to avoid crises of underconsumption constitutes the basis of contemporary economics. To the unproductive consumption of privileged groups the welfare state adds sectors of the population which are seldom employed and are kept on welfare and other subsidies. Institutionalized waste, state expenditures other than welfare (i.e.; defense expenditures, public works) and the exploitation of the population of other nations also contribute to maintain the rate of profit while changing the size and composition of the reserve army of labor and producing therefore important changes in population structure and processes. It is important, at this point, to realize that the reserve army of labor of the capitalist system is international in nature.

For example, looking at a concrete historical capitalist society, empirical research would show that its reserve army of labor is composed by its own ranks of the unemployed and underemployed plus those who immigrate from other countries or, while remaining in their own countries, occasionally work for foreign owned and/or controlled corporations. Awareness of the international dimensions of the reserve army of labor is important for sound research, sound policy making, and effective political analysis and practice. Policy recommendations which see in population control a solution for internal social problems and a step towards development, are based upon an analysis of the problem that focuses upon closed societies where population structure and processes are determined mainly by individuals have no control whatsoever. Policies of this kind which see in population control a panacea for unemployment and poverty and a pre-condition for development are unrealistic and doomed to failure in the long run though they might be effective as techniques of social control in the short run.

A Marxist analysis of the current population situation in the countries of the Third World would aim at specifying, for each country, the concrete relations of economic dependency that link that country to another or to others, as well as the kinds of social and political structures which emerged upon the basis of such colonial or neo-colonial relationships. Once that aspect of the problem has been determined, the nature of capital accumulation and its effects upon population (i.e. its effect upon the quantity and quality of the demand for labor, location of investments and their relationship to migration and population distribution, etc.) can be assessed within the context of the existing legal and political framework and the main tenets of the dominant ideologies about the family and sex roles.

Neo-Malthusian emphasis on birth control and family planning programs aimed at underdeveloped countries today repeat the same error that Malthus committed almost two hundred years ago. There is obviously (i.e. empirically available to common sense perception) a problem of "overpopulation" in the Third World if by that it is meant that a large proportion of their population is hungry, jobless, sickly, and dies very young. It also appears obvious that, given the situation of economic stagnation of those countries, lowering the birth rate might improve a little their situation. However, such arguments assumes that both private and public sources of investments whether national or foreign are ACTUALLY spending too much in services for the excessive dependent population (i.e. housing hospitals, schools, etc.) and that such funds would be automatically diverted towards productive enterprises if population size or, more specifically, if the dependency ration were to decline. Such assumption is not only naive but reveals lack of scientific rigor in the analysis of population within underdeveloped countries.

Birth control programs within the context of the capitalist mode of production amount to the same advice Malthus gave to the English working classes. What underdeveloped countries are told today is that the road to development is based upon population control and their underdeveloped condition is partially or totally blamed on their excessive rates of growth. To attribute underdevelopment to the operation of the Malthusian principle of population alone, disregarding the situation of colonialism and neo-colonialism under which those countries stagnate, the relationship between the plunder of their resources and the indiscriminate introduction of public health measures which drastically reducing the death rate CREATED the gap between birth rates and death rates and, therefore, the present "population explosion," etc. is again typical of the kind of analysis prevalent in academic circles. The inability of academic intellectuals to see the present historically leads them to an incomplete analysis of the problem and to policy recommendations (such as the implementation of birth control clinics and family planning programs) which contribute to the perpetuation of the problem they are trying to solve.

So far this general discussion has proceeded at a macro level of analysis. At the micro level and from a Marxist perspective, a great step towards the understanding of population processes could be taken from what might tentatively be called, at this point, "the alienation theory of fertility."

It is surprising the modernity of Marx's statement. Written more than 100 years ago, it accurately describes contemporary life under conditions of capitalist production. It is not surprising, though, that contemporary sociology regards this separation between the world of work (where workers are exploited, full of anxiety and forced into a ruthless competition with their fellow workers) and the world of leisure (where workers are turned into consumers of sex, children, consumer goods, mass entertainment, and "gourmet foods") as "functional for the maintenance of the system."

Only in a society where individuals are allowed to develop fully within their historical possibilities will their animal functions be integrated with their social activities and will not constitute the main axis around which life is organized.

Engels' statement in no way contradicts what has been said in this paper regarding the Marxist theoretical standpoint on the population issue. To admit the abstract possibility of the necessity of curtailing population increase does not invalidate the Marxist rejection of the use of that possibility as an unavoidable outcome of "natural laws" which control and explain contemporary events. From a Marxist theoretical perspective, that constitutes a reification of the exploitative relations within a specific historical mode of production which generate both artificial food scarcity and surplus population.

Looking at the contemporary situation in underdeveloped countries, the Marxist critique of Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian analysis and policies does not deny the existence of the problems that stem from high dependency ratios and high rates of population growth. However, it shows that to deal with such phenomena as "population" problems overlooks the social, political, and economic structural factors that make possible such a population structure and processes and that, therefore, as long as population control remains the main or only concern of the various international and national organizations which in one way or another are trying to foster economic development in underdeveloped societies, their action will only consolidate the economic backwardness they are avowedly aiming to solve.

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