Malthusianism and the Terror of Scarcity

by Larry Lohmann

first published 2 November 2005

Since 1798, Malthusianism has been one of the great scare stories: a tale of overnumerous "Others" menacing "Us". For 19th-century French elites, these Others were German and British; for late-Victorian English elites, they were the working classes of their own nation. In early 20th-century United States, they were immigrants from Southern Europe or China, or the "morons" and "unfit" infesting slums or backward rural areas. Today, they are immigrants swarming to take advantage of Britain's National Health Service or California's job opportunities, or "welfare queens" breeding in US cities, or the "youth bulge" stirring up trouble in "Muslim countries".

However, Thomas Malthus, who invented the story in his 1798 Essay, was not a xenophobic demagogue, but a courteous, cosmopolitan clergyman and mathematician who professed much concern about the plight of the poor. What is the relationship between the dark, often racist, scare stories of Malthusianism and the polite establishment economic wisdom in his story about how society should be analysed and organised?

This book chapter suggests that the Malthusian "darkness and terror" narrative about Us and Them and the Malthusian economic model strengthen and complement each other. It describes the Malthusian political economy story against its historical background; goes on to describe how the economic model contained in the story needs the Us-and-Them fear narratives; and concludes by detailing how the Us-and-Them narratives also need the Malthusian mathematics to perpetuate and reconstitute themselves as civil common sense.

The chapter is from the book, Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties, edited by Betsy Hartmann, Banu Subramaniam and Charles Zerner, published by Rowman & Littlefield, November 2005.

The book addresses how environmental and biological fears are used to manufacture threats to individual, national and global security. All the contributions outline how such fears should be examined criticaly to avoid unneccesary alarm and scapegoating of people and nationas as the "enemy Other". It aims to uncover the tools that make fear resonate in the public consciousness and to identify the interests that create or are sustained by such fears.


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