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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Marx and Malthus

The two people who have taught me the most about reading Marx over the last couple of years are a., Amie, whose essay on the German Ideology graced this blog (with a bonus pic of Bliss!), and b., N Pepperell at Rough Theory, whose blogposts are such excellent guides to reading Capital that they make fish sing and cats bark. And she is back, with this post about Marx and Malthus.


N Pepperell said...

Hey roger - thanks for the kind words - and for the idea for how to illustrate that post... :-) Let's hope some of this stuff has a similar impact on the examiners (who are being shortlisted as we speak... urk!) Take care...

northanger said...


Anonymous said...

LI, it's very nice of you to say that about my piece that you were gracious enough to post, but let me not go there. I'd much rather go to NP's posts on Marx , which I agree with with you, are incredibly suggestive. I've been meaning to read them all, read them with the care they demand, but haven't been able to do that yet. So I shouldn't comment. But i just want to very briefly, as the recent post re Malthus and Marx is striking and I'm struck by a particular passage NP excavates and quotes:

"After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence."

What strikes me in the passage, which as NP points out is a very curious passage of cross dressing and shape shifting, is something that opens up - a mouth.

A mouth into which words are put.

In these passages of Capital, it is also a question of famine. Hunger is hunger, as NP pointed out in another post quoting Grundrisse.

It has me thinking of the passage through the mouth, of what passes through the mouth - History, such a big word to be chewed over in the mouth, and its contingencies.

In the same chapter of Capital, Marx "quotes" an account, a single example, a testimony taken "verbatim" from the speaker's mouth. It would be too obvious to say it is necessarily as quoted "second hand" testimony, but in the testimony of the "skilled factory hand", what happens to the women and children to whom he also tries to bear witness and account and testify for?

What a happy life the Irish factory operative leads one example will show:
“On my recent visit to the North of Ireland,” says the English Factory Inspector, Robert Baker, “I met with the following evidence of effort in an Irish skilled workman to afford education to his children; and I give his evidence verbatim, as I took it from his mouth. That he was a skilled factory hand, may be understood when I say that he was employed on goods for the Manchester market. ‘Johnson. — I am a beetler and work from 6 in the morning till 11 at night, from Monday to Friday. Saturday we leave off at 6 p. m., and get three hours of it (for meals and rest). I have five children in all. For this work I get 10s. 6d. a week,; my wife works here also, and gets 5s. a week. The oldest girl who is 12, minds the house. She is also cook, and all the servant we have. She gets the young ones ready for school. A girl going past the house wakes me at half past five in the morning. My wife gets up and goes along with me. We get nothing (to eat) before we come to work. The child of 12 takes dare of the little children all the day, and we get nothing till breakfast at eight. At eight we go home. We get tea once a week; at other times we get stirabout, sometimes of oat-meal, sometimes of Indian meal, as we are able to get it. In the winter we get a little sugar and water to our Indian meal. In the summer we get a few potatoes, planting a small patch ourselves;. and when they are done we get back to stirabout. Sometimes we get a little milk as it may be. So we go on from day to day, Sunday and week day, always the same the year round. I am always very much tired when I have done at night. We may see a bit of flesh meat sometimes, but very seldom. Three of our children attend school, for whom we pay 1d. a week a head. Our rent is 9d. a week. Peat for firing costs 1s. 6d. a fortnight at the very lowest.’”
Such are Irish wages, such is Irish life!


roger said...

Amie, good find. Marx is, like any great writer, a great quoter. There is the series of damning quotes that testify to the caged, stultified life of the workers, and the parallel series of quotes from the political economists - mouths on two registers. Malthus, I think, joins up together the sermon (another by the mouth art)and political economy - which was also why he was so unbearable to Hazlitt. I wonder if Marx read Hazlitt's vicious and beautiful reply to Malthus?

Which, oddly enough, has pertinence today. The absurd healthcare debate in the U.S. turns, really, about a Malthusian point: whether the uninsured - like me - should be "sacrificed" for. When opponents of universal healthcare write about waiting times, they are, of course, really writing about the effect of extending the demand for medical care. Because if the uninsured have the power to demand medical care, than there will be a greater demand on a stable supply. This is an argument Malthus would relish - for really, how can we expect the prosperous to sacrifice their precious time for the mouths - ears, eyes, bellies - of those outside the system? Marx, and Hazlitt, would recognize this reasoning in a second. The overpopulation - or overdemand - of the poor is strictly relative not to the misery they may bring upon themselves, in the Malthusian scheme, but to the chance that they may intrude upon the goods and livings of the wealthy.

This mode of reasoning is alive and well, in 2009.

P.M.Lawrence said...

For a moment that reference to Hazlitt puzzled me with its apparent anachronism, as at first the economics context made me think of of the later Henry Hazlitt and not of the earlier William Hazlitt - just as references to Horace Mann make me think of Horace Mann, but in reverse. Anyway, here is his reply to Malthus.

roger said...

Now, really, Mr. Lawrence, do you think I'd be throwing Henry Hazlitt's name around so lovingly? You must think my sympathies are as broad as the Niagara!

Anonymous said...



roger said...

Wow. That was a very ... timely film excerpt!