Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 2 July 2018

Reply to a Reader: Capitalism, Overpopulation and “the Clash of Civilisations”.

Hi Dan. You are quite right: it can never be said that “capital causes overpopulation”. What can be said, however, is that capital requires overpopulation because, without an expansion of those “simultaneous working days” (Marx), surplus value and profit would have no social efficacy whatsoever! Think of a capitalist who invested profits in acquiring more “things” (land, properties, jewels): these objects would require unproductive labour (“unproductive” for capital, in the sense that Smith, Ricardo, Marx all used the word) - in other words, they would require “servants” to maintain them. But these “servants” would not be able to sustain....more workers (!) - which is why such “investment” would be “unproductive” if not indeed counter-productive!
Furthermore, though capital does not cause yet requires overpopulation, there is no doubt that the living labour of workers, their antagonism to wage labour, forces capitalists to adopt more “productive” technology which facilitates the sustenance of an expanding working population. (Indeed, in the Grundrisse quotations in the previous post, Marx argues that the very expansion of the working population makes capitalist investment more “productive”, through the division of social labour - a point emphasised by Smith and even by List). Thus it can be said that the antagonism of the wage relation...facilitates or enables or even perhaps en-genders overpopulation.
Obviously, if capital does not strictly “cause” overpopulation, it certainly benefits from it - in whatever way it can, say through the spread of religious beliefs encouraging procreation (Christianity, Islam) or through reduced child mortality.
The more emancipated workers become, however, women especially, the harder is the task of capital to find new “markets” - that is, living labour to exploit.
I know from your previous comments that you are entirely aware of the dire environmental consequences of this “dynamic” of capital, so I will not go into those.
The aspect of capitalist dynamics (“development”, “growth”) that will be the subject of my next posts is perhaps the most pressing, urgent one at the moment: - the interaction between access to exploitable working populations under the political control of regimes not entirely open to the “formal freedom of labour” which is essential to the most legitimate form of capitalism - “market” capitalism (China, most notably) and the relation of “democratic” and “liberal” capitalist parliamentary regimes to these other autocratic, despotic regimes (“emerging markets”) that, whilst supplying the “markets” necessary to capital, yet quite openly threaten its survival as a globally dominant mode of social production and reproduction.
This aspect of capitalist dynamics is currently misinterpreted (almost universally) as “the clash of civilisations”.
This aspect of capitalist dynamics relates quite obviously to trade and exchange rate regimes, monetary and financial policies and, of course, “labour mobility” or immigration which was central to the theory of Optimal Currency Areas in the 1980s and 1990s.
My thesis is that “democratic parliamentary regimes” where the “formal freedom of labour” is guaranteed constitutionally (“market capitalism” where the “market” is guaranteed fundamentally by the formal freedom of workers) are absolutely essential to the survival of capitalism - which is why we should always fight with a Roosevelt against a Hitler, and with US democracy against the Chinese and Russian dictatorships, to be perfectly blunt.

So, there you have it: these are the political and economic knots that I will attempt to untie summarily over the next few days and weeks. Thanks again for your much-appreciated sharp and perceptive comments.

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