The Myth of ‘Too Many People’

by Nat Weinstein

The March 27 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle published a debate in its “Open Forum” section on the recent decision of the AFL-CIO to reverse its long-standing hostility to the rights of immigrant workers.

The writer taking a position in support of the AFL-CIO decision was David Bacon, co-chair of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights. His opponent was B. Meredith Burke, who The Chronicle describes as “population adviser to the Ecology Center of Southern California.”

The pro-AFL-CIO position is titled “Immigrant Workers Must Be Free to Make a Living.” Mr. Bacon effectively argues that the rapidly escalating economic inequality spreading around the world has already resulted in some 80 million poor people migrating for jobs and a better life from their impoverished homeland to the more developed countries in Europe, Asia, and North America.

He blames this, and rightly so, on “the structural adjustment and trade policies imposed by wealthier countries and international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.” And he predicts that the migration of many more millions struggling for economic survival “will not stop until the underlying economic causes forcing people from their homes are eliminated.”

This supporter of the new AFL-CIO position is apparently a far more perceptive representative of radical liberalism than most. He makes that clear by his emphatic opposition to the “building of walls around the United States,” the “militarization of its borders,” and the “draconian anti-immigrant legislation” enacted by capitalist lawmakers.

Moreover, he reveals a much deeper appreciation of the problem by flatly asserting the objective fact that none of these oppressive measures can halt the incoming flood of people desperate for a chance to make a better life for themselves and their children. Thus, he commends the AFL-CIO for having recognized this fact and for reacting positively.

On the other side of the debate carried in the Chronicle is a B. Meredith Burke (though Burke’s gender was not indicated-we will assume it to be female), who denounces the AFL-CIO for “selling out the little man and the nation.”

As we shall see, the little men and women about whom Ms. Burke expresses concern are not typical of the great majority of working people but of the small layer of more privileged workers on the border between workers and self-employed small business people, like her father, who have managed to enter the ranks of the middle classes.

The labor federation’s critic starts out by giving her pro-union credentials: Burke describes her father as “a union man nearly his entire life,” and tells how the union’s victories enabled her parents “to buy into the American dream.”

She further stakes her pro-labor claim by describing how a strike by a newspaper union in the 1940s won her father, a news-stand operator, “a one-penny increase in the amount he retained of the price of the paper.” She explains that in those days “papers cost 5 cents” and a penny “was a significant increase” won for her father by the union.

She further notes that “the union was still paying him benefits in 1972, when my father retired while on strike against the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.”

She also recalls her mother thanking God for having allowed her parents to realize the “American dream.” She then makes clear that it’s not God, but American capitalism, whom she credits for her parent’s economic success. She gets this message across by pointedly noting that her mother had commented at the time: “Where else can working folk live like this?”

Then Ms. Burke proceeds to pin the blame for falling living standards on the unions-as she puts it, “for all of us, not just working folk.” She further blames the unions for “demographic naiveté and the crassest opportunism,” as being the real cause of the “vanishing American dream.”

Ms. Burke then proceeds to spell out what she means by the AFL-CIO leadership’s “selling out the little man.” She writes:

“Its call for another round of amnesties for millions of illegal aliens [sic] is fueled by a vision of millions of potential new union recruits. … It is not motivated out of concern for the best interests of common working folk or this nation’s future. Its call will lay the heaviest costs on the states that attract the greatest number of entrants, legal and illegal.”

She goes on to base her entire case on the thesis of the late 18th, early 19th century British economist Thomas Malthus, who is notorious for having blamed hunger, disease, and premature death on overpopulation. Thus, following in Malthus’s footsteps, Ms. Burke writes:

“The low cost of living, the unparalleled beauty of the natural setting my father’s generation enjoyed were benefits conferred by a sustainable population base. In 1940, the country had 132 million people; California, 7 million people. By 1950 the nation’s 150 million and Calfornia’s 10 million people were both butting up against ecological limits. Yet land for postwar housing tracts was cheap; one merely had to convert nearby farmland. Long Island and San Gabriel Valley farms alike vanished.”

In other words, since there are now over 270 million people in the United States today, there’s nothing whatever wrong with the system, according to Ms. Burke, that the elimination of 100 million or so surplus people wouldn’t cure-that is, in this country alone.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that there are all too many well-motivated people who have been seduced by the Malthusian myth that the problem of the world today is too many people.

Malthus declared in his writings that overpopulation is an inevitable result of the geometric expansion of population-that is, population grows 2, 4, 8, etc.-while food supply and other human needs grow only arithmetically-that is, 1, 2, 3, etc.

Malthus was a minister in the Church of England and was also a dedicated advocate of the capitalist economic system and arch-apologist for its legacy of economic and social injustice. Malthusian ideology was since eclipsed by more sophisticated versions of blaming social injustice on God or nature rather than on the capitalist social order-most notably the doctrine known as “social Darwinism” and more recently as “biosociology.”

The latter terms are really pseudoscientific rationalizations for justifying man-made capitalist social, economic, and political injustice as simply the workings of biological evolution’s law of natural selection-or, as it were, nature, red in tooth and claw.

But history has long ago revealed the underlying fallacy of this “too many people” rationalization for capitalist social, economic and political organization, which is, indeed, “red in tooth and claw.”

The simple but indisputable fact is that agriculture, animal husbandry, and industrial production has also been increasing geometrically-and at a faster rate than human population growth in the advanced industrial societies.

But it’s not these essentially technological advances but the entirely uncontrolled profit-driven economic system that lies at the root of the cancer eating away at the planet’s ecological and environmental system.

In fact, the rate at which productivity grows in highly advanced industrial societies is actually held back, as well as being deformed, by the anarchic system of capitalist production. In periods of runaway capitalist industrial expansion, such as is now in progress, geometrical industrial and commercial expansion always ends in a collapse of the productive forces. And as sure as night follows day, this will happen again.

Machines will grind to a halt, workers will be idled and society will drown in an epidemic of overproduction. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote: It’s as if “a famine, a universal war of devastation [will have] cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce [will] seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there [will be] too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” (“The Communist Manifesto,” 1847.)

Moreover, while any intelligent and informed observer can see that the rate of expansion of human productivity can systematically be increased without any foreseeable limit, it is also apparent that the periods of expansion of the productive forces are blocked and reversed, regularly and predictably, by the anarchic social and economic system of production known as capitalism.

Neither, for that matter, has the growth of human population any foreseeable limits. It depends entirely on human social, economic, scientific, and technological progress. But only conscious, democratic planning can provide the most rational and efficient utilization of the planet’s natural resources in the interests of human society.

And by the same token, it requires the most conscious, democratic, social and economic planning to maintain a balance between human needs and the bio-ecological, environmental system that is the planet earth.

In the meantime, the growth of population can, and ultimately must, be put under the conscious democratic control of the human race, according to the soundest and most practical methods of birth-control available. And in the last analysis, the decision to conceive or not to conceive and bring to term the birth of a child must be the decision of each individual woman and those she cares for and who care for her.

The final decision must be left to the woman-according to the inalienable right of every human being to control her or his own mind, brain and body.

Meanwhile, despite one of history’s most rapid expansions of the means of subsistence-along with a growing variety of new wants and the means for satisfying these wants-average living standards of all those who must work for a living have been falling for the last several decades.

And paradoxically, these standards have fallen faster during the current decade of unusually rapid economic expansion than ever before.

Simply but accurately put, while the rich continue to get richer and the poor poorer, the gulf between the two in the last decade of economic boom has widened faster than in any other previous ten-year period.

Thus, while Ms. Burke and her ilk blame the decline in living standards on the AFL-CIO and its unions, the absurdity of her argument-which is shared-to their everlasting shame, by world capitalism’s movers and shakers, is there for anyone to see who wants to see.

1 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, in the “Communist Manifesto,” 1847.

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