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Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse

Iain Boal interviewed by David Martinez - Counterpunch, September 11, 2007

Iain Boal is an Irish social historian of science and technics, associated with Retort, a group of antinomian writers, artisans and artists based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is one of the authors of Retort’s Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2nd edn, Verso, 2006). This chapter is based on a conversation prompted by DAVID MARTINEZ, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and journalist, in late 2005. It also draws on material from a forthcoming book by Iain Boal, entitled The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure.

DAVID MARTINEZ: I’d like to talk with you about "scarcity" and "catastrophe". On the talk shows there is even discussion of an impending collapse of society due to dwindling oil supply. The concepts of scarcity and collapse are hardly new, and obviously the invasion of Iraq brought the issue of oil into sharp focus. Can we start with the sacred cow of scarcity?

Iain Boal:  Sure. With respect to oil, we should begin with the observation that the general problem for the petro-barons has always been glut, or to put it another way, how to keep oil scarce. They’ve done a pretty good job, although all monopolies have to be measured against De Beers, who have the corner on diamonds. They are the world’s masters at constructing scarcity, in this case, of crystalline carbon, which is actually rather common in the earth’s crust. So one thing to make clear is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is not about absolute scarcity.  For sure, the history of oil is complex, and the fluctuations in the supply of oil have an extraordinarily complicated relation to price, demand, and reserves. But in order to understand scarcity – whether of oil in particular or of commodities under capitalism in general – you have to look at the discourses of scarcity and of poverty. And that means you have to look at the historical moment of the institutionalizing of economics – defined in the textbooks as "the study of choice under scarcity" – as the dominant  way of talking about the world, and the relation of these to capitalist modernity.  And that story is indeed interesting.

In order to understand "scarcity" as a sacred cow, we have to go back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Because, no question, we are living in a Malthusian world. By that I mean that Malthus’ way of framing the issue of human welfare has triumphed.  And I think it’s especially important for the Left to understand this. Particularly those who got drawn into politics through concern about the environment, who count themselves as "green". Scratch an environmentalist and probably you’ll find a Malthusian. What do I mean by that? What is it to be Malthusian? Well, it’s to subscribe to the view that the fundamental problems humanity faces have their roots in the scarcity of the resources that sustain life, because the world is finite and we are exhausting those resources and also perhaps because we are polluting them. Notice how this mirrors the basic assumption of modern economics – choice under scarcity. In his notorious essay published in 1798, Malthus argued, or rather asserted, that population growth, especially of poor bastards, would inevitably outrun food supply, unless the propertyless were restrained from breeding. He advocated that poor people be crowded together in unhealthy housing, as a way of checking the growth of population. Remember, this is the world’s very first economist we’re talking about here.

And don’t forget that Malthus was in his own time consciously devising a counter-revolutionary science of economics and demography: his essay was a response to a famous best-seller by the utopian anarchist William Godwin, husband of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley who later wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the hubris of (male) science. Godwin had written An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice during the euphoric period after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the overthrow of the French monarchy. Godwin’s optimistic, atheist, rationalism was born of the revolutionary events happening across the Channel – "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive", in the indelible line of Wordsworth. But as the counter-revolution set in, Thomas Malthus felt emboldened to compose his Essay on the Principle of Population as an explicit response to Godwin’s vision of an ample life for all. Malthus invented an "iron law of nature" intended, rhetorically, to put a damper on Godwin and the perfectibilians, and in practical political terms to discourage "idling" and illegitimacy and to cut away the existing welfare system which was a safety net for the poor.

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