Feb 132018
 

Today is the birthday (1766) of Thomas Robert Malthus FRS, an English clergyman and scholar who was hugely influential in political economy and demography. Normally I would not post about two famous Englishmen in related fields, back to back like this; I like my posts to have some variety. In this case, however, having Darwin Day yesterday, on Darwin’s birthday, followed by Malthus today, almost works, and the two belong together. Darwin would probably never have come up with the idea of natural selection if he had not been reading and considering Malthus on population when he was sailing in the Beagle and considering the reasons for all the variety that he saw. It would have been better for me if they had shared a birthday, and I could have united them in a post that way. A day’s difference is a small inconvenience. I cannot always conjure up coincidences.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. That is, humans had a propensity to exploit abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living. This position has become known as the “Malthusian trap.” He added that populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship and want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a “Malthusian catastrophe.” Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible. He saw population growth as being inevitable whenever conditions improved, thereby precluding real progress towards a utopian society: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. As an Anglican cleric, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behavior. He remains a much-debated writer. Some economists contend that since the industrial revolution, humans have broken out of the trap. Others argue that the continuation of extreme poverty indicates that the Malthusian trap continues to operate. Others further argue that due to lack of food availability coupled with excessive pollution, developing countries show more evidence of the trap.

According to Malthus the propensity for population increase also leads to a natural cycle of abundance and shortages:

We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population…increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions, must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

Malthus has faced opposition from economists both during his lifetime and since. One of his most vocal critics several decades later was Friedrich Engels.

Research indicates that technological superiority and higher land productivity had significant positive effects on population density but insignificant effects on the standard of living during the time period 1–1500 AD.] In addition, scholars have reported on the lack of a significant trend of wages in various places over the world for very long stretches of time. In Babylonia during the period 1800 to 1600 BCE, for example, the daily wage for a common laborer was enough to buy about 15 pounds of wheat. In Classical Athens in about 328 BCE, the corresponding wage could buy about 24 pounds of wheat. In England in 1800 CE the wage was about 13 pounds of wheat. In spite of the technological developments across these societies, the daily wage hardly varied. In Britain between 1200 and 1800, only relatively minor fluctuations from the mean (less than a factor of two) in real wages occurred. Following depopulation by the Black Death and other epidemics, real income in Britain peaked around 1450–1500 and began declining until the British Agricultural Revolution. Historian Walter Scheidel posits that waves of plague following the initial outbreak of the Black Death throughout Europe had a leveling effect that changed the ratio of land to labor, reducing the value of the former while boosting that of the latter, which lowered economic inequality by making employers and landowners less well off while improving the economic prospects and living standards of workers. He notes that “the observed improvement in living standards of the laboring population was rooted in the suffering and premature death of tens of millions over the course of several generations.” This leveling effect was reversed by a “demographic recovery that resulted in renewed population pressure.”

Robert Fogel published a study of lifespans and nutrition from about a century before Malthus to the 19th century that examined European birth and death records, military and other records of height and weight that found significant stunted height and low body weight indicative of chronic hunger and malnutrition. He also found short lifespans that he attributed to chronic malnourishment which left people susceptible to disease. Lifespans, height and weight began to steadily increase in the UK and France after 1750. Fogel’s findings are consistent with estimates of available food supply.

The rapid increase in the global population of the past century exemplifies Malthus’ predicted population patterns, whereby expansion of food supply has encouraged population growth. “Neo-Malthusianism” may be used as a label for those who are concerned that human overpopulation may increase resource depletion or environmental degradation to a degree that is not sustainable.

A strict Malthusian approach is depressing, but it fails to take into account factors that could undermine natural processes. Humans, for example, can decide en masse to limit family size, or it can be limited by the government. This is the reason that Engels was opposed to Malthus. If you take human agency out of the equation, then there is no chance to escape the Malthusian trap. Some people argue that the Industrial Revolution caused sustained economic growth that led to a “breakout” from the Malthusian trap and is known as “unified growth theory.” It is hard to tell at the moment because the 20th century saw monumental changes in technology, 2 world wars, massive genocide campaigns across the globe, easily available birth control, and a host of other factors that radically shift a purely Malthusian outlook.

For centuries, including in Malthus’ time bread was the “staff of life.” Without bread people starved to death, as we know from the famous saying falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette. This video walks you through bread making in the 18th century using a variety of grains that were substituted for wheat when there were shortages:

Feb 212017
 

On this date in 1848 The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was first published (in German) in London. It is a much misunderstood document, as is much of Marx’s work in general. I don’t have the space here, nor time, to redress all the misunderstandings, but I’ll make a start. The Manifesto was itself written to correct misunderstandings of what communism is/was, but it was itself misinterpreted badly by European revolutionaries and in points beyond. Marx was not envisaging dictators such as Stalin and Mao, but that’s the model of Marxism that has stuck in the general consciousness in the West, largely as a result of the Cold War.  Marx was addressing the radical divide between the people with all the money (hence power) and the rest of the population that was the model in his day in Europe, and which continues unabated. In my opinion his analysis of the situation (then and now) is generally sound, but his historical analysis is not.  The most important misunderstanding is of the world Marx envisaged – not the oppressive regimes of the likes of 20th century Russia and China, but a world in which the common people (proletariat) were not controlled, mind and soul, by the desires of an oligarchy of very few, very rich people (bourgeoisie), but, instead, controlled their own destinies.

I should probably start with a critique of Marx (and Engels) to demonstrate that I am not some kind of doctrinaire Marxist myself. Marx wrote in an era when very general ideas of the evolution of things were just beginning to catch hold, undoubtedly because Europe was radically changing under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution. A world that had seen precious little in the way of technological change for almost a thousand years was gripped by rapid and constant change and this had an effect on the intellectual world because change was in the air. The Grimms, for example, developed hypotheses concerning the evolution of languages, Lewis Henry Morgan proposed a theory of cultural evolution, and, of course, Darwin was interested in biological evolution. Marx stepped in with his own theory of historical evolution. My “simple” task here will be to try to separate the wheat from the chaff in Marx’s thinking, and will, obviously, end up being simplistic.

Where Marx has proven to be most blatantly wrong is in his hypothesis that capitalism would collapse of its own weight. Over 150 years later it is still going strong, the ultra-rich still hold all the power, and there’s no sign of collapse even though the disparity between rich and the rest is, if anything, greater than it was in Marx’s time in developed countries. The two major countries where a simulacrum of Marx’s ideas led to violent revolution in the 20th century, Russia and China, were not capitalist cultures at the time of their revolutions, but experiencing the last vestiges of feudalism that were ripe to be overturned — and have since adopted capitalist ideals on a large scale (including the huge disparities between the rich and the rest).

What cannot be denied is that the vast majority of people living in contemporary capitalist cultures are, by and large, comfortable. Of course they are exploited and controlled by a tiny minority of very rich people, but their lives are comfortable enough that they are hesitant to seek change, and so they continue as is. We still have plenty of poor people living in horrendous conditions but the Western world does not look like the Victorian London or Manchester of Marx’s day. The bulk of the electorate in Western democracies have food on the table, drive cars, have stable (if tedious) jobs, and aspire to owning their own homes. They have the time and money to go on vacation to exotic places, and they wear decent clothes. Discontent these days centers on the evident slowing of what was once a steady improvement in these comforts, not in the system itself.  Hence the capitalist system will endure unscathed through the rest of my lifetime and beyond. I have no idea what will cause its ultimate demise, but it will end – one day.

1848 was the “Year of Revolutions” in Europe. No country emerged untouched, although not all participated in overt revolution. Marx certainly contributed to the general revolutionary fervor with the Manifesto. But the revolutions were fueled by a lot of forces, notably nationalism, apart from the desire for social change.  Marx’s rhetoric was inserted into the revolutions, but socialism of a different sort, led by social philosophers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, and Robert Owen, was also on the horizon, leading in a different, non violent, direction.  They were called “Utopian Socialists” by detractors (including Marxists) because their visions were viewed as naïve.  What is frequently missed is that Marx’s socialist aims were the same as theirs, only the vision of the methods of achieving it was different.

Beneath the revolutionary rhetoric Marx was a humanist. If you read his works prior to the Manifesto  you get a much clearer sense of his underlying humanistic social philosophy. He imagined a post-capitalist world in which farmers collectively owned the farms, workers collectively owned factories, and so forth, and they would inevitably benefit because they would keep all the profits and make all the decisions. We can argue about the validity of this hypothesis, but there is no question that Marx envisaged a brighter world for everyone when the workers were the masters. He did not imagine Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Perhaps he should have. Revolution from the bottom up begets tyrants.  Marx should have known this; the French Revolution produced Napoleon. The American Revolution was different because it was not from the bottom up, but from the top down. The first rebels in the North American colonies were the rich who wanted less taxation and less regulation on their businesses (times don’t change much !!).

Marx was spot on when he pointed out that capitalism commodifies labor so that workers see themselves in terms of their earning power rather than in terms of their inherent human (and individual) traits. Workers thus take less pride in their work and more in their pay check. Work becomes a means to an end (house, car, vacations, etc) rather than an end in itself. In consequence all other social activities, such as education, are judged in terms of their ability to increase earning power and not for their intrinsic merits. I’m absolutely sick and tired of reading article upon article that charts the universities with the graduates who earn the most, the college majors with the best earnings potential, and the careers with the highest salaries.  So what????  I became an anthropologist, a teacher, and a writer because I love doing that work. I can look back on a long career with pride and happiness because my jobs have made me happy, not because I have stacked away piles of money. My riposte to the ages old barbed question, “If you are so smart why aren’t you rich?” is simple. “I am not rich because I am smart; I have other goals in life.”

I am not a doctrinaire Marxist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am enough of a Marxist to believe that people should live in a society where they are free to choose their own destinies, and not shackled by the dictates of the system.

Some apt quotes from the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie . . . has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The proletarians have nothing to loose but their chains. They have a world to win.

 

I’ve never wanted to be a chef because I’ve never wanted to debase my cooking via the profit motive.  I cook because I love to cook – end of story.  I hope this blog makes that point loud and clear. Today of all days you should cook something that you most love to cook, and cook with passion – not with an eye to time, cost, or any other variable other than devotion to the task itself. That means that you should choose today what recipe best suits you.  You are the master. For lunch today I had braised rabbit with wild mushrooms in a sauce seasoned with red pepper, garlic, onions, allspice, and ginger, with boiled new potatoes and broad beans on the side.  I’m not going to give you a recipe because (a) I invented the dish as I went along, and (b) today is your day to cook what you choose, not what I have decided for you. My braised rabbit took me 2 days to prepare because I like my dishes to rest overnight when they have complex sauces. I loved the preparation – and it was delicious.

Here’s a small gallery of things I have cooked recently.  In each case I cooked what I wanted without any recipe, just following my heart’s pleasure: