Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Bourgeois Politics of Frugality.

The bourgeois politics of frugality are alive and well with us in the most form of austerity. You know the line: we've all got to tighten our belts in order to pay-off the deficit left over by New Labour. Conveniently it's only the masses that have to tighten their belts. All the while David Cameron promises a new road of progress that we will find once the deficit has been chopped down. But there is no sign of financial discipline for the banks. Yet the Right does not hold a monopoly over the politics of frugality. Take the fears of over-population on the Green Left which has its origins in Malthusian thought. Malthus railed against the Enlightenment view of history as progressive in its insistence that humanity could not indefinitely improve its conditions. There are limits to human development given the state of the environment, we shouldn't downplay these limits but it is the Malthusians who overplay them. It is capitalism that takes production as infinite whereas socialism is not about the expansion of productive forces.

Rather it is established after the build-up of material abundance. This abundance is not an endless flow of goods for us to consume, but it is a sufficiency produced with the minimum of unpleasant exertion. The Malthusian message is essentially that any attempt to improve the living standards of the mass of the population is doomed to failure by the natural limits of the environment. The view that the growth of population comes at a rate faster than the production of food goes on to hold that the productivity of labour in agriculture would inevitably fall over time. Malthus was looking to defend the interests of the landed aristocracy in England. To this end he argued that it is inevitable that society will outstrip its resources, so the living standards of most people are unsustainable. The wage level has to be kept at subsistence in order to deter the poor from having more children. It was David Ricardo who followed this claim further to the position that the subsistence wages necessary to keep workers alive would rise so profits would fall until society reached a stationary rate.

At this the mode of production would cease to grow any further. The logic being that the imbalance between population and food production would be brought down to an equilibrium (as the surplus mouths are eliminated in the system). If this equilibrium were to be disturbed it could wobble out of balance and then there could be a famine. For Malthus the attempts to build a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity are doomed to degenerate into a society constructed upon a plan no different from that which prevails in every known state today. Only a class society of proprietors and labourers was imaginable to Malthus. It was the case that Malthus saw capitalism as natural, it then followed that any attempt to abolish the system was utterly crazy. It is consistent with the structural need in capitalism to raise the productivity of labour higher and higher while it holds down wages across the workforce. We shouldn't be surprised then that Malthusianism was routinely invoked to justify low wages in the 19th Century.

It's clear whose side Malthus was on, as he made the case to crush the living standards of the poor it was only the wealthy who would benefit from this. The push to limit the birth-rate of the poor would only eventually have to be reversed once the system requires an influx of fresh labour. It was completely outside the outer-limits of Malthusian thinking to see that the relative overpopulation was a "problem" of economic relations. The composition of capital means that a smaller number of workers can produce a given amount of commodities. The capitalist may well react by sacking the surplus workers, this may indeed have been his aim in introducing the new technique in the first place. The result is that the accumulation of capital involves the constant expulsion of workers from production. There are not more people than there is food to keep them alive. Instead it is that there are more people than capitalism needs. The superfluous population is deprived the wages on which workers depend to survive.

It is important to keep in mind that the capitalist economy generates an industrial reserve army of unemployed workers in this way, as part of its management of the accumulation process. The unemployed and newly arrived workers provide a pool of workers desperate enough to be vacuumed up into new branches of production at the lowest of wages. This helps to keep the employed on their feet and force them to accept a wage that can be held down easily. The expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army regulates the wages of the employed. The existence of an industrial reserve army strengthens the position of the capitalist and makes it easier for him to increase the rate of surplus value. If the total amount of capital remains the same, then the rate of profit will rise. So a greater intensity of exploitation is one counteracting influence on the falling rate of profit. From all of this it should be clear that the suggestion of "overpopulation" is something to beware for anyone concerned with a future for all on this decaying planet.

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