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Essay: Exploring Cobbetts’ Indebtedness to Malthus and Marx’s Reactions: Max

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Paste your essay in here…Over two hundred years after it was written, Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on The Principle of Population is still read and examined by scholars of nearly all fields of study. Many people feel that his work has been misinterpreted by various politicians and scholars alike. Although he embraced advanced political ideas, William Cobbett was at heart, quiet conservative. His although overlapping in philosophy, his body of work can be seen as reactionary to that of Malthus. The dismantling the selfish oligarchy was Cobbett’s imagined objective. In his views, he saw all socioeconomic classes living in certain harmony on common land. Karl Marx on the other hand remains without a doubt, the most influential socialist thinker to emerge in the 19th century. Only after his death 1883, was his work first recognized by scholars and revolutionaries alike. His collaboration with socialism’s co-founder, Fredrick Engels is The Communist Manifesto has inspired several working class revolutions. With these three writers very familiar with Malthus’ work, it is interesting to see the responses they had to his theories.

Cobbett's intellectual relationship with Malthus was quite interesting upon first glance. The former initially seemed to glorify Malthus. According to Cobbett himself, "Before the rays of (Malthus's) luminous principle, the mists of erroneous or hypocritical humanity instantly vanish, and leave the field clear for the generation of reason." Its obvious here, that Cobbett appeared to admire what he perceived as a logical response to the utopian philosophies of other modern scholars at the time. It is not entirely surprising based on the fact that Cobbett himself held a quite conservative stance – especially in his earlier responses to Malthus. These words are of many that make so intriguing, the manner in which Cobbett changes his opinions on Malthus throughout his lifetime. Cobbett at one point states that Malthus's suggestions that population is outgrowing potential produce is a fallacy. He states, "I do not only not know that fact, but I know that, besides it’s being contrary to reason and experience, it is next to blasphemy to assert it." Cobbett starkly separating himself from the Malthusian viewpoint that he has once exalted. Furthermore, Malthus’s words regarding the poor laws become inspiration for much of Cobbett’s more “radical” thought. At one point, Cobbett suggests that the poor stage a violent revolutionary uprising against affluent landowners. Cobbett believed that the English elite could no longer be trusted with ameliorating the conditions of the poor. After several uprisings in Cobbett’s time, English government officials went as far as accusing him of inciting riots.

Additionally, Cobbett makes the simple argument that because of our shared motor skills, humans have the ability to grow their own produce. I found this interesting considering that not all people are able bodied or minded to perform hard agricultural labor. However, nevertheless, according to Malthus, the amount farmable land will not be enough for every person to provide their own sustenance. Cobbett seemed to take liberties to this view as he believed otherwise. In 1831, he presented the “land-labor ratio” – statistical evidence that showed that enough land did in fact exist to sustain society through food cultivation. He presented that in Wales and England, a whole “forty-three acres to every single able labourer in agriculture” existed. However despite the suggested ability to feed the population, in contrast to Malthus, Cobbett reasoned that a utopian society in general was still unfeasible. Malthus argued that a poor class would always exist, and his concerns lied more with “ameliorating” the conditions of the poor rather than the extreme undertaking of the overall elimination of the poor class.

Also intriguing was Corbett’s arguments regarding what he referred to as “moral education”. He believed that the struggle of clergymen controlling their physical passion was analogous the internal struggle that is faced by the poor class. Although I don’t entirely agree with Malthus’ view on the impoverished, I still struggle with Cobbett’s spiting of Malthus. I do genuinely think that Malthus’ work can be misinterpreted to sound in spite of the poor class. However, I believe in Malthus’ theory in that personal charity and disorganized welfare programs are harmful to a society. The theory implies a concept with which I agree with and can offer an analogy to. If you feed a hungry duck at a pond, more ducks will inevitably come along asking for more. I fully believe in the notion that Life within a civilization is a competition. Darwin’s concepts of the “survival of the fittest” are perfectly applicable to society. However, we can improve society by giving all people the right to an equal platform from which stand on in order to fairly compete amongst their counterparts. Malthus suggests this through the concepts of affordable education. By offering affordable education, the members of the poor class can gained the tools to enter a more skilled working class, which accordingly, offers better yields for higher standards of living. In addition, Malthus’s work can be interpreted to argue that it is a privilege to bear children, as those children need sustenance in order to survive. It is the responsibility of able-bodied, working parents to provide for as many children and they “want to afford”. Aside from temporary unemployment, disabilities and injuries, it should not fall upon the poor laws, or welfare from tax dollars to pay to sustain the children of discouraged workers. It is the obligation of the parent and the goal of the state to help keep poor class families employed and self-sustained. Anything less would be child neglect.

However, as I have stated, Malthus’ work has been misinterpreted. It is not uncommon to have radical thinkers mistaking and reading too far into another’s work – finding support for their own claims. Some writers believe Cobbett’s philosophy as the byproduct of this type of misinterpretation. In his criticisms of Malthus, Karl Marx uses the former’s Essay as a platform to suggest unjust and discriminatory circumstances imposed by capitalism. He argued that the rise of population confronts the supply of employment rather than the supply of subsistence. I do find value in his argument. Today, we are facing an era where much of industrial labor has been eliminated by advancements in technology. It makes one wonder at what point virtually all labor will be replace by technology, and the only remaining labor will be the engineering and maintenance of technology. However, despite partially agreeing with Marx on this, I feel that problems arising from population growth are due to many different resource usage issues as well. While technology has improved our lives, we still have trouble efficiently allocating and using our resources.

Additionally, in his critique of Malthus, Marx emphasizes that Malthus’s conceptions of the laws of natures are erroneous. He claims that the laws of nature as described by Malthus are not natural laws at all, but rather they are laws that are necessary for the maintenance of “bourgeoisie”. While I find this concept of Marx to be entertaining, I find it simply fallacious. Before the existence any bourgeois middle class within society, checks on population existed. These include both “preventive checks”, such as delaying childrearing until finances are balance, and “positive checks” which were the result of famine, war, starvation, disease or other premature death. Today, we can work as a society to prove this concept wrong by eliminating checks such as disease, starvation, and war, however, these are obstacles that at times may seem insurmountable, as they have fundamentally been part of the historical human condition.

In slight contrast, Engels’ view on Malthus was defined by his “optimistic” view of a future devoid of the empty utopian promises. Engels’ faith was in the development of technology and science. That argument in itself fills perhaps the biggest holes in Malthus’ original essay on population growth. Malthus as mentioed, failed to forecast the advancements in technology that resulted in what today has become industrialized agriculture. This has made Engel’s theory one of the stronger responses to Malthus. Modern food production is both reliant and a byproduct of technological advancement. The volume of food produced for a civilized society is entirely dependent upon the process of production behind it. This production is accordingly dependent on labor employment.

Engels more importantly, views population growth as being sustained by production value of the individual. He claims improving the efficiency of labor will empower of the individual in supplying produce and capital for a group of consumers, in other words, a family. Engels argues that as production becomes increasingly efficient, the standards of living will accordingly increase. With technological advancements in farming and agriculture, the same amount of labor that once could yield subsistence for one person, could now feed an entire family.

In his essay, Malthus suggests that although civilization could sustain itself by focusing all labor towards agriculture and food production – Engels is quick to question the former. He argues by saying, "it is ridiculous to speak of overpopulation while 'the valley of the Mississippi alone contains enough waste land to accommodate the whole population of Europe.'" Malthus jumped the gun by assuming that almost every part of the world had already been plowed and used for farmland. Engels shoots back, pointing out existing unexploited land. This seemed to be a common critique of Malthus at the time as civilization was becoming increasingly educated in the exploitation of land.

In reflection, Marx and Engels’ interpretation of Malthus’ work was that any burden on society is rooted in the lack of employment rather subsistence. This of course is fundamentally, in stark contrast too Malthus’ name-brand assertion the size of the population exponentially outgrowing the growth of the means of subsistence. Malthus in his original philosophy supported employing the poor through workhouses, abating concern regarding to unemployment.

It remains quite intriguing the ways in which Malthus’ work has been interpreted by so many great and infamous thinkers over the years. William Cobbett appeared to admire what he perceived as a logical response to the utopian philosophies of other modern scholars at the time. He agreed with the idea that proper allocation towards agricultural labor would allow humanity to properly sustain itself. However, his mood on Malthus took a 180 over his lifetime. In his later work, Cobbett began to seemingly spite Malthus, referring to him as misguided and flawed. In 1798, Malthus said, "The power of population is so superior to the power of earth to produce subsistence to humanity that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race." Today, his work is still quite relevant. It exists as a marker of how society can transcend restraints and fears of a darker age, yet heed important advice from the great thinkers of the past.

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