William Blum: Neo-Malthusian

By Stephen Gowans

One billion people in the world – one-sixth of humanity – have too little to eat. One-half of humanity is malnourished. Some 18,000 children die every day from malnutrition. (1)

If that weren’t enough, rising prices are pushing food beyond the reach of numberless more.

Government leaders, corporate board members, the owners of large corporations, are concerned – not because billions are hungry, but because the hunger of billions threatens to destabilize their rule. Food riots have become too frequent to ignore. The head of the CIA worries that growing desperation and poverty in the world will degrade “the US security environment.”

The causes of rising food prices are manifold and interconnected. The industrialization of China and India has created growing demand for oil, putting upward pressure on the price of agricultural inputs based on petroleum, from fuel to run farm machinery, to fertilizers and pesticides. Downstream, rising oil prices increase the costs of transporting foodstuffs to market. Increased emission of greenhouse gasses has created droughts, desertification, and extreme weather, the latter responsible for considerable crop damage. For example, heavy rains last summer left tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded in north Korea. The growing demand for oil has led agribusinesses to divert land use to ethanol production, reducing the supply of corn for human and livestock consumption. Finally, rising standards of living in China and India have led to an increased demand for food.

Global growth in demand for comestibles at a time supply is contracting has hurt Third World populations the most. Many were already precariously balanced between subsistence and famine. Now millions more are faced with starvation. Western domination long ago forced Third World countries into a pattern of monoculture farming, where a few cash crops are raised for export and most foodstuffs are imported. These countries are food insecure, relying on exports to earn sufficient foreign exchange to import what food they need. But as food prices rise, countries that export foodstuffs are imposing export tariffs, reducing even further the supply of food heading to straitened Third World countries. That has put even more upward pressure on prices in places where rising prices can be absorbed the least. Food aid from Western countries palliates the problem in the short-term, but reinforces the underlying causes. The food the West sends to the Third World to avert famine is grown in the West, which means the problem of Third World dependence on Western countries for food is never addressed. The Third World needs to become food independent, which means breaking the chains of neo-colonial bondage.

Rising food prices command considerable attention today, partly because their effect is felt in the West and partly because they threaten to touch off militant challenges to the system, but the real reason one-sixth of humanity is hungry and one-half malnourished has nothing to do with the rising standard of living in China and India (indeed, rising standards of living attenuate the problem.) The roots of hunger are found in the reality that food is produced and sold to earn a profit, and half of humanity doesn’t have the income to pay for food at prices that allow the producers to make a profit.

At root, it is a system that sets prices above the ability of half of humanity to pay that is to blame. It is not a paucity of food and water relative to the population that is creating privation, as William Blum, author of Killing Hope and the Anti-Empire Report, would have you believe. Blum recommends that birth rates “be radically curbed” because “all else being equal, a markedly reduced population count would have a markedly beneficial effect upon global warming and food and water availability.” There are simply too many people, he says. (2)

About the time Blum was revealing his neo-Malthusian sympathies, Fred Magdoff was pointing out in The Monthly Review that the fact billions are hungry has nothing whatever to do with population counts, but with capitalism. In the US, more food is produced than the population requires, yet hunger remains a problem. Cut the US population in half and there would still be an over-supply of food — only a bigger one. Would food banks suddenly disappear? The same is true elsewhere. Magdoff points to two headlines to make his case:

“Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots.” (3)

“Want Amid Plenty: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger.” (4)

Those who remember the Great Depression will recall that poverty and hunger co-existed with plenty. Indeed, poverty and hunger were the children of plenty, of “too much civilization,” as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.

If the crises that threaten capitalism occur predictably so too do the regular bouts of Malthusianism that break out whenever the system threatens to fall into disrepute among those who must bear the brunt of its inhumanity. It is then that intellectuals, both left and right, raise the over-population alarm. Beneath their apparent hard-headed realism lurks the system-conserving message: poverty and hunger are not systemic; they happen because there are too many mouths to feed. In 1936, when Blum’s intellectual predecessors were attributing the Great Depression to over-population, one opponent of this deeply reactionary view replied:

“The plea of ‘over-population,’ of the ‘pressure of rising population on natural resources’… has demonstrably no basis in world facts, that is, in the physical and technical facts of world resources and world production. The alleged ‘over-population’ of particular countries is in the first place relative to the social relations within those countries, and is finally…relative to the existing system of division of the unity of world economy. On a world scale the advance of productive forces and even of actual production far outstrips the advance of population.

“The expansion of world production…including foodstuffs, has far exceed the growth of world population.

“Potentially, then, we have all the conditions present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe. For the actual expansion of production bears no relation to the potential expansion which could be achieved, if the existing fetters” (i.e, capitalism) “were removed.” (5)

The solution for hunger is not, as Blum advises, “petitioning American leaders to become decent human beings” and radically curbing birth rates. (6) The moral decadence of American leaders and the size of the world’s population are not the problem. The problem is the organizing principle of the capitalist system. Food isn’t grown to feed people; it’s grown to feed bottom lines. Prices are set to make a profit. If the prices are out of reach of half of humanity, from the point of view of the system, that’s regrettable, but unavoidable. Profit is the system’s alpha and omega; people are simply the means of getting there.

Blum, whether he intends to or not, is a system-conserver, acting to deflect attention away from the system itself, to red herrings, like American leaders needing sensitivity training and women needing to be outfitted with the Malthusian belts imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World to keep the world population in check. If you’re bamboozled into believing the cause of world hunger lies in George Bush needing moral remediation and people being too philoprogenitive, the system carries on, and is never challenged and changed. When future crises arise, and want worsens in the face of “all the conditions (being) present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe,” another Blum will step forward, as Blum’s have before, to blame capitalism’s failure on an unsustainable population count.

1. Fred Magdoff, “The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions,” Monthly Review, May 2008.
2. William Blum, “Anti-Empire Report,” May 1, 2008. Blum argues in the same issue that Colombia’s rebel guerrilla army, the FARC, long ago ceased to be Marxist and has become the Colombian equivalent of the Mafia, engaged in kidnappings for ransom, protection rackets and drug trafficking. Blum seems to regard the words “Marxist” and “criminal” as mutually exclusive. Being outside the state, the FARC is hardly in a position to tax the residents of Colombia to raise money in “legal” ways as Colombia’s regular army does. Blum’s disqualification of the FARC as being Marxist because it engages in criminal activities brings to mind Brecht’s question: What is the crime of robbing a bank against the crime of founding one? It’s unclear how Blum expects the FARC to furnish itself with the means to operate – apply for a Ford Foundation grant?
3. New York Times, December 2, 2002.
4. Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2004.
5. R. Palme Dutt, World Politics, 1918-1936, Random House, New York, 1936, pp. 27-28.
6. Anti-Empire Report.

6 thoughts on “William Blum: Neo-Malthusian

  1. Hi Steve

    If there is a limit the questions then become: what is it?,who decides what it is?, how is it controlled?, etc.

    Today as a generalization people in the industrialized (capitalist) “West” i.e. N. America and western Europe (and Japan?) have fewer children than in the past and fewer than in the “Third World” i.e. Africa, S. America, etc.
    This is a result of many factors but I’m guessing that the elimination of wide spread poverty is probably the most important.

    So that as wealth is distributed equally according to need not means people would “naturally” limit the number of children they would have.

    I think though there is still a “stigma” attached to couples who don’t have children and to women who do not have a male partner.

    All of this may be “off topic” but this is what I am thinking about as I try to understand what a socialist/communist society would be like on this question of population.

    I am not advocating population control or blaming poverty on the number of people living.

    At some point each person dies and the question becomes when and under what conditions.
    Today there are young children dying of cancer in the “West” mainly and 10 million children under five die each year from malnutrition and preventable diseases (poverty) in the “Third World.”.

  2. Hi Ted,

    Yes, one can quite easily imagine a limit. But that doesn’t mean we’re anywhere near it, or that we need to radically curb the birth rate. At the some point, the earth’s orbit will decay, and the planet will crash into the sun. That isn’t, however, an argument to begin planning for the colonization of a livable planet in another galaxy.


  3. Hi Steve

    Another thought (question).
    Is there a limit to the human population of the earth under socialism/communism?

  4. Ted,

    The organizing principle in capitalist society is profit, not satisfying human needs, not preventing environmental degradation, not safeguarding wildlife, not feeding hungry mouths. If any of these things happen, they happen incidentally, or when they’re forced to happen because the system is under threat and concessions are made by those who benefit from the system to avert the threat.

    What are called “pragmatic” solutions to problems in capitalist society, are ways of trying to do what most people would like to be done but aren’t done, leaving the organizing principle of profit-making in place. Of course, the reason these things aren’t done in the first place is because they’re at odds with profit-making, which is why liberal solutions, the Tobin tax being a good example, rarely go anywhere.

    The organizing principle in socialist societies is satisfying human needs, and preventing environmental degradation and safeguarding wildlife where these things are necessary to satisfy human needs. A socialist society is consciously planned; it doesn’t, as is true of capitalist societies, unfold in accordance with an internal logic. The point is to do the things most everyone agrees need to be done but aren’t done because it doesn’t make sense to do them from the point of view of the logic of the system. Few would disagree that the hungry should be fed, but from the point of view of a system organized around profit, selling food at prices that fail to maximize profits makes no sense. Accordingly, billions of people, without the means to pay for food at prices that would allow the owners of the assets that produce the food to make a profit, go hungry. They’re also hungry because they’ve been denied access to land to produce their own food (white settlers, for example, may have driven their ancestors off fertile land by force and are now using the land to produce cash crops for export, while the dispossessed now live in urban slums, or, if we’re talking about Palestinians, in refugee camps.)

    In order for a consciously-developed plan to be executed, the public has to have control of the economy; otherwise, if the economy is left in the hands of private owners, what’s to compel them to use their property in accordance with the plan? (And why should we continue to allow ourselves to be exploited?)

    What might the plan entail? Inexpensive, high-quality, public transportation, and rational urban planning, to obviate the need for private automobiles to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduce consumption of fossil fuels. These things are not done today, because they run up against the profit-making interests of automobile manufactures, oil companies, civil engineering firms, and steel and glass manufacturers. It’s naïve to think we can simply mandate, by law, that these things must be done. Automobile manufactures, oil companies, civil engineering firms, and steel and glass manufacturers are able, by virtue of their wealth, to dominate governments, by the placement of key personnel in important government positions and by their power to squeeze governments economically by threat of capital flight and capital strike. In the US, no amount of longing for public health insurance, raising awareness of the issue, leftist film-makers making films about it, and voting for the Democrats (even ones who promised public health insurance) have delivered. Nor would Ralph Nader’s mustering enough votes to win the presidency deliver, since this would do absolutely nothing to undermine the power of corporations to overwhelm Nader’s supporters in lobbying legislators and bribing them with the promise of lucrative and interesting jobs when their political careers are over; backing opposition candidates to work against and thwart Nader;, demonizing Nader, his plans and supporters in the media; threatening to move jobs to more accommodating countries; and if none of that worked, assassinating him.

    The same can be said for a whole bunch of other things that ought to be done, from establishing free public health and dental care, free education through the highest levels, investing in alternative and clean forms of energy, green agriculture, raising crops for human consumption rather than livestock consumption, and so on – things that are never going to be done within capitalist societies for long, because they don’t make sense from the point of view of capitalism’s organizing principal, and capitalists, who dominate governments, aren’t going to allow them to be done for long simply because they make sense.

    Consider, by comparison, the plan to radically curb population. Would it do anything to change the organizing principal of capitalist society? Would it put in place cheap and efficient public transportation and green urban planning to obviate use of private automobiles? Would it lead to investment in alternative sources of clean energy? Would it end exploitation, allowing living standards for the majority to rise as a consequence?

    The only thing good that can be said about the plan to radically curb population growth is that it is not a solution, since it addresses none of the underlying problems. It simply says, let’s go on doing what we’re doing now, but reduce the number of people who are doing these things, so that we can put off the day of reckoning.

    The bad thing you can say about the plan is that it’s deeply reactionary. It says poverty and environmental degradation are not problems of the way in which societies are organized, but are problems of there being too many people. Poverty isn’t a problem of capitalism – it’s a problem of over-population. Environmental degradation isn’t a problem of capitalism – it’s a problem of over-population. This lets capitalism, and the small fraction of the world’s population that benefits from it, off the hook. It diverts anyone interested in real change into a cul-de-sac.

    The way to do the things most of us think should be done (public health care, averting environmental catastrophe, eliminating hunger, and so on) is to mobilize enough people to bring the state and economy under public control to replace the organizing principal of profit by a consciously-developed plan to achieve these things.


  5. Of course you are correct Stephen it is the capitalist system but I would like help to understand how would socialism reduce the impact of human activity on the resources of the earth.
    My concern is destruction/degradation of wildlife habitat.
    I understand the exploitation of natural resources for private profit is destructive and that the distribution of wealth is unequal and becoming greater daily but as the earth’s population increases the demands on the natural resources increases and as more people live in cities which demand food, etc. to be supplied to them and create more waste, etc. how will socialism prevent the inevitable depletion since most resources are finite.

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