Alfred C. Goodson
Outsourcing Malthus:
Bare Life and Demographic Reason

The population bomb, as we think of it, was first detonated by Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman whose Essay on the Principle of Population (1st ed. 1798) set off a firestorm of commentary by political economists and the new men of letters. Unchecked growth is the principle that he discovered; controlling it on behalf of the welfare of the poor was his concern. Demographic foreboding remains at the heart of current reckonings with the futures of European, American and Israeli societies in ways that revert to Malthus’s case. He was responding to William Godwin, the influential author of Political Justice (1793; 2nd ed. 1796), whose Rousseauvian optimism about the human prospect is innocent of population crisis. Godwin’s attack on the monarchy and its institutions occurred at the beginning of a long period of population growth in the United Kingdom, a development that would make Malthus’s cautionary rebuttal sound prophetic. The shock of a ratio underwrites his intervention in the great debates of this period. His mathematical horror of the population bomb takes the sublime into new territory: »Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second« (10). Coleridge, his near contemporary at Jesus College, Cambridge, satirized this proposition as proving that man could not live without eating. But such logic-chopping hardly touches the visceral fear that the numbers represent. Population panic has been with us ever since.

The spectre of Masse Mensch produced a reaction in English opinion rather like the current reversion to native identities in Holland and the US Southwest. Pictures of would-be immigrants climbing or swimming into Spain or Arizona stir up atavistic memories of famine and bloody mayhem in places not so far removed from starvation. Malthus begins from the truism that »population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence« (iii), a proposition lost to view in an age of superabundant resources. But such abundance is never once and for all. Explosive population growth, of the kind we are now witnessing, is sure to catch up with the agrarian revolution, and public attitudes reflect this Malthusian recognition. Yet the urgency of population control is a blunt political instrument more than »an obvious truth« (iii) as every tinhorn dictator concerned to put up the national body count bears witness. International influence turns on numbers. Kenneth Kaunda’s ban on birth control in an impoverished Zambia was of a piece with Vladimir Putin’s latter-day promotion of Russian fertility, in this connection. The numbers matter for purposes of national self-regard as well as the maintenance of retiring workers. Teeming masses are not just strong arms, nor just mouths to feed. They are living symbols of national virility.

Population growth feeds national pathology in this way, but it takes a public toll. England was in the throes of »an epidemic of nerves in 1800.« The nervous body politic is associated with the drastic turn of events in France, but it also happens to coincide with the dramatically rising national birth rate. »As one physician noted, ›nervous diseases make up two-thirds of the whole with which civilized society is infested‹« (Logan 206). The key word here is civilized, with an implication of the special stresses of civilization. Under threat of invasion, a return to national terra firma was underway in the social imaginary, as it is once again in the age of Prozac, under pressure of immigration from developing countries experiencing rapid population growth. For our epidemic of nerves is no longer an insular national affair, it has become international. Malthus has been outsourced: »Very large questions arise when you juxtapose two demographic trends: Rich countries are aging and poor countries are producing far more babies than jobs. This is an explosive combination. In the history of the world, the more numerous and hungry have-nots repeatedly have overwhelmed the haves to plunder their riches. That fear underlies the debates in Europe and the U.S. over immigration. It also relates to the U.S. attempt in Iraq to convert a former Arab socialist dictatorship into a model market democracy« (Melloan). The national pathology at work in the population bomb has been globalized in this way. It has become a war of nerves that pits restless developing populations in Mexico, Palestine and Turkey against host nations in need of workers. The tables are turned when such human cargo becomes an instrument of policy in the hands of the donor nations. The national epidemic of nerves is aggravated as host nations become defensive and even paranoid. The international circulation of the population bomb circumscribes the politics of the new century.

United Nations special envoy Jean Ziegler characterizes this as an affective regime in his recent book, L’Empire de la honte. Ashamed of their poverty, African natives long for the European peace and prosperity they have heard tell of. Many are driven to cross the Sahara or go to sea in a perfectly understandable wish to escape medieval societies. Ashamed of our inability to respond to their needs, we are driven back on introjected social arrangements. If hunger is war by other means, as Willy Brandt used to say, immigration is the threshold of this universal shame. In the present climate of fear and mistrust, the problem of culture looms large. For it is on this basis that accommodation is brokered and assimilation takes place — or does not, with consequences fresh in mind from recent events in France, a nation provocateur still. Such problems do not turn up in Malthus’s calculations because population growth was a national issue, as he saw it. But the larger context of his argument includes an excursion into anthropology, of the rudimentary sort familiar from Kant’s late collation of lecture notes, his Anthropologie. This has been revisited in a forthcoming book by David Clark with an eye to its characterizations of gender, race, and sexual preference, with entertaining results. The subjective universality of the Sage of Königsberg, the foundation stone of modern liberal assumptions, proves wonderfully rife with the usual academic prejudice and self-referentiality. Much the same might be said of Malthus and his little exemplum of the human condition, which subtends his demonstration of the population bomb. »In the rudest state of mankind,« exemplified by North American Indians and the Hottentots of the Cape, »the passion between the sexes is less ardent.« A sort of natural birth control is at work in such populations. »Yet notwithstanding this apathy, the effort towards population, even in this people, seems to be always greater than the means to support it« (39). Man in his primitive weeds is the bottom line of Malthus’s calculations in this way. He is particularly critical of the treatment of women in such societies — »one half of the nation appears to act as helots to the other half« — and he attributes a high infant mortality rate to their subservience, which functions as a tax on population growth. Even so, the savage nations, as he calls them, are already plagued by indigenous increase, the population bomb ca. 1800. Hence the »melancholy hue« (ii) of his principle of population.

Malthus’s diagnosis of mankind and its discontents is of a piece with his clerical defense of the institution of marriage as the cornerstone of society. Venery is bred in the bone — »towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made« (13). Marriage is its countervailing force. The population bomb thus falls squarely within the province of the clerics. The problem begins with the natural course of human entropy: »the true cause that set in motion the great tide of northern emigration, and that continued to propel it till it rolled at different periods, against China, Persia, Italy, and even Egypt, was a scarcity of food, a population extended beyond the means of supporting it« (49/50). The quest for Lebensraum is the great motor of history because population increase is a human universal. This is a heroic enterprise, as Malthus sees it, a pre-Darwinian business of the survival of the fittest. He is full of admiration for the rapacious Men from the North, even as he regrets »the prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food« (48). Moral qualms come into the matter only in his conclusion »that the commission of war is vice, and the effect of it misery« (52) though »none can doubt the misery of want of food.« So qualified a reckoning with the force of universal history hardly qualifies as caritas. Concern for the individual caught out in the tides of history is beside the point of demographic reason.

If universal history is simply the story of the population bomb, the state of what Malthus calls civilized nations exemplifies the problem in microcosm. England is made to stand for the general situation, pace Adam Smith and David Hume. Their informing roles in this Essay on the Principle of Population remind us that such anthropological fabulation has everything to do with the rise of the new economic order. For this is the moment of the rise of the sciences humaines godfathered by the errant son of a Geneva watchmaker. Seen from within this culturally specific context, population control is really about social mores, especially marriage rules, that anthropological reality principle. The morality propagated by Malthus’s essay dwells on the difficulties involved in contracting satisfactory relations in the rising middle classes to which he belonged. »The positive check to population« (71) is enforced by the prospect of inadequate means to maintain a respectable family life. For »the labourer who earns eighteen pence a day« (67) life is harder, for he has no prospect of reproduction without poverty and starvation. Social distinction is represented in this way as an effective means to the control of unbridled population growth. Class shame is the affective foundation of Malthus’s argument for conventional, middle-class moral calculations as the basis of virtuous behavior for all, including the poor. He counsels against poor laws requiring local parishes to take charge of their own because they encourage idleness and misery by maintaining a population whose growth can only produce more of the same. Keeping the poor down »to the level of the means of subsistence« (Malthus i) is the real morality at work here, as his vocal critics in the period understood (Hazlitt). Shame was at the heart of population control long before Mexican immigrants were calling the iron curtain on their border el muro de la verguenza.

Immigrants, the nameless ciphers sweeping the subways of the New World Order, have become our faceless poor. A lack of extended identity afflicts both groups alike. Following Malthus’s practice, it would be inappropriate to characterize such persons as individuals. It is their economic function that makes them significant, and that alone. They have no distinctive features, no culture, as we imagine them. Their native tongue is nothing but a problem. What to call such a mode of existence? Giorgio Agamben, that melancholy arbiter of the post-human condition, has introduced the tag bare life to signify just such an existence as immigration has to offer. In Agamben’s essay of 2002, L’aperto: L’Uomo e l’animale, »a genealogical study of the concept of ›life‹ in our culture« (13), bare life signifies the end of the difference between human and animal existence, foundational for what we think of as human. Already in 1946 Alexandre Kojève, the great expositor of Hegel, thought »the ‘American way of life’ was the type of life proper to the post-historical period, the current presence of the United States in the World prefiguring the future ›eternal present‹ of all humanity. Thus, man’s return to animality appeared no longer a possibility that was yet to come, but as a certainty that was already present« (10). Kojève’s literal construction of Hegel’s eschatology of the post-human is a period piece, expressive of the ressentiment of a certain conception of Man as a French intellectual turned state functionary, as Kojève himself was. His sense of American identity as bare life, »detached from any brain activity and, so to speak, from any subject« (15) in Agamben’s own definition, is presented here as a ludic moment in the genealogy of the concept of life that he is tracing. Yet it points unmistakably to the phantom existence that we have come to identify with the immigrant. The US, a nation of immigrants, is his natural home.

What is the immigrant if not a beast of burden? In his functional animality lies the root of the domestic issue with immigration in general. For he presents us with the human face reduced to servility if not outright slavery. And this is our own face, though we deny it by assigning it an alien identity. The effacement of the human in the condition of the immigrant is a threat to our human dignity. The offense is psychic more than ideological, for our residual humanism does not permit us to exclude this face from Homo sapiens. We accept immigrants on the same terms that our cotton-planting ancestors accepted their slaves, and for the same reasons. Their labor is our economic ease. They pick our fruit, maintain our estates, nurse our children, support our early retirement. In the case of illegal immigrants, some twelve million in the US, they pay social security taxes for benefits that they will never receive. In effect, they pay us not to work. What they ask for this thankless submission to the yoke is a modicum of personal respect. They would like to be considered as persons, not oxen. They would like their children to go to US schools, to become US citizens. Many would like to speak Spanish in public, to celebrate the Cinco de Mayo without fear of persecution by the authorities. It seems little enough.

More is at stake here than the hard facts of immigration -- much more, by the light of Agamben’s apocalyptic essay on the meaning of life. What is this, exactly? A transcendental signified is the short answer: a »concept that never gets defined as such« (13) in the manner of the virtual objects of all of the positive sciences from astronomy to zoology. Life in this transcendental sense is equivalent to the Greek bios, root of biology, our eating of the fruit of the tree of life. Does life begin at conception? Is the embryo human? These simple queries suggest the scope of the issues involved in defining life. US courts have been detained for years by such questions in connection with the endless national debate over abortion rights. Agamben’s terse formulation stakes out the consequences: »And yet, this thing [life] that remains indeterminate gets articulated and divided time and again through a series of caesurae and oppositions that invest it with a decisive strategic function in domains as apparently distant as philosophy, theology, politics, and — only later — medicine and biology. That is to say, everything happens as if, in our culture, life were what cannot be defined, yet, precisely for this reason, must be ceaselessly articulated and divided« (13, emphasis original). As a transcendental concept, life is vague by design. Biological science proceeds by description of the terrain of a field associated with the term bios, operating without knowledge of the limits of its scope. All science is blind in this way. What biology doesn’t know can’t hurt it, or so its practitioners appear to believe. Yet such willing suspension of disbelief motivates an obsessive quest for verification, as if the term referred to something quite particular, something whose existence required ongoing proof. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) put a face to this motive in Malthus’s time. The simulacrum of human being dramatized the trouble with thinking literally about life, while the mad scientist was identified with the nervous body (Goodson). Only a madman in obsessive overdrive would be driven to replicate life in this morbidly literal way.

The identity of scientific models with their virtual objects of knowledge is only an association of ideas, however powerful this might turn out to be instrumentally. The meaning of life lies in this association of ideas, beginning from Aristotle. It is not at conception but here that life begins, properly speaking — as a concept, not a conception. Such explanations do nothing to answer the fundamentalist-positivist politics of the fetus. The same body politic is mostly unconcerned for the life of the immigrant, except insofar as he can be run out of town and turned back on his bare life so that it is out of sight and out of mind. The spectacle of bare life is as intolerable in this alien face as in the abortion pornography stalking the streets of our cities. It is the animal gaze that offends the eyes of the native public.  Its own animal revulsion is a political problem as oceanic as the concept of life.

The way out of this dubious binary lies within man, the concept, as Agamben construes it. »It is possible to oppose man to other living things, and at the same time to organize the complex — and not always edifying — economy of relations between men and animals, only because something like an animal life has been separated within man, only because his distance and proximity to the animal have been measured and recognized first of all in the closest and most intimate place« (15-16). So large a conception of the foundational issue involved in our instinctive loathing of the immigrant-animal exceeds the scope of ordinary political discourse. In the current climate of hostilities, it can only sound theoretic. In fact Agamben expands from a critique of humanist ideology to an attack on spiritual embodiment, of a kind sure to arouse the animus of the cultists who dominate the sovereign state: »if the caesura between the human and the animal passes first of all within man — and of ›humanism‹ — that must be posed in a new way. In our culture, man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and a soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element. We must learn instead to think of man as what results from the incongruity of these two elements, and investigate not the metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but rather the practical and political mystery of separation. What is man, if he is always the place — and, at the same time, the result — of ceaseless divisions and caesurae?« This proposed displacement of the cult of embodiment concludes on an appropriately political note: »It is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way — within man — has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so-called human rights and values. And perhaps even the most luminous sphere of our relations with the divine depends, in some way, on that darker one which separates us from the animal« (16).

Agamben’s coda inscribes the cultural binary of the human animal within a reinscribed theology. Which is to say that his vision is not at all Hegelian in the way of Kojève, but postmodern in its recovery of a horizon beyond Enlightenment Man, with his anecdotal anthropologies and his all-too-transcendental sciences.

The immigration crisis is the tip of an iceberg, a sign of something ominous lurking beneath the creaking bow of the modern state. Agamben’s call to reflection resumes Heidegerrean themes that take us back to the primordial cry of Hölderlin, to the high anxiety of the nervous body rattling like Cassandra at the new empire of reason. It is worth recalling the terror of that overture to modernity because we experience its aftershock as a political crisis rather than as an affective charge. The revaluation of all values called for by Agamben is no job for a Malthus, nor for what politics has ground down to. The issues are foundational, even theological, in a time of general theological melt-down. For who can respond authoritatively, publicly, to the question of life, on behalf of the whole of the human condition and not just in the vested interests of the mosques, synagogues and churches? Positive science cannot, for it is committed epistemologically to the transcendental signified, to a way of knowing that is compromised by its inability to define what it would describe, as Agamben suggests in his detailed reckoning with biologism. The fundamental idealism of biology means that it can characterize life as though from outside, but that it cannot speak from within its real, inner identity with this mirage, at the cost of self-alienation. Science speaks of life but it cannot speak effectively for life, on behalf of the animal existence that it shares.

The scope of Agamben’s objection to scientism makes his essay impracticable as a guide to political understanding within the limits of the modern state, except insofar as it would discredit our working concept of the political. For the terms of his call to reflection preclude our enlistment in the parade of modern statecraft, with its great issues, pretty notional human rights, and self-serving ›values.‹ It is monastic work that he takes to be the real work of culture in a time of mass migration and the clash of civilizations. He cites Foucault’s early work on the formation of the modern state to call into question its vocation of minding the animal mass of its citizenry — in asylums, where necessary for reasons of state. Such a state replicates the false dichotomy of body and soul on a grand scale, leaving the care of souls to la noblesse de la robe while arrogating to la noblesse de l’épée the power to dispose as it wishes of refractory elements of the population. Agamben participates in this way in Foucault’s libertarian turn, inviting us to challenge the fiction of the care-taking state not only because such care is politically interested, but because it reduces its citizens to Circe’s swine, depriving them of meaningful agency and human aspect. Such a line of critique has more in common with conservative attacks on the welfare state than it does with social-democratic habits of observation. Yet Agamben’s broadside attack on the duplicities of embodiment is simply alien to the vulgar transcendentalism of Burkean conservatives from Carl Schmitt to the incumbent US president. He cannot be considered political in the modern sense because he is not a party animal.

The immigrant has become a figure of bare life, as I have suggested. His abjection is our shame because he displays too openly our animal aspect, challenging »the native naked dignity of man« — Wordsworth’s formula, exactly contemporary with Malthus’s Essay. Humanism cannot admit such a reality principle because it is subversive of everything that is sacred to modern feeling. Spite affects ideology in Malthus’s denigration of the animal. The foundational distinction is evident in his characterization of the specifically human by contrast with the ostrich, a striking figure of dumb nature: »A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to show, that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating; that the lips have grown harder, and more prominent; that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape; and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers. And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shown, it is surely lost time and lost eloquence to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state; to describe his power, both running and flying; to paint him in a condition where all narrow luxuries would be condemned; where he would be employed only in collecting the necessaries of life; and where, consequently, each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample« (10-11). So eloquent a display of clerical spleen invites rebuttal. Is Man not in fact ostrich-like? Is he not a pack animal, not always political in the Aristotelian way? Is his politics not very much of the alpha-dog variety, a matter of pecking orders and pecking to death, in the manner of caged birds? Against the grain of his portrait of human kind, Malthus’s line of argument takes an unwitting step in the direction of social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest, or at least the richest. Devil take the hindmost, meaning the population surplus to the requirements of the leisured classes, including Malthus’s own theological class.

In the rear-view mirror of modern history, it is his head that looks to have been buried in desert sands of arid speculation, usually thought to be cloudy. For agronomy has kept up with a global population that has doubled three times, with potato famines here and there to be sure, but always within prospect of new worlds with better fodder. Returning to his little Essay is an exercise in reality checking at a time when a wave of immigration is sweeping the planet, with political undercurrents making the age-old habit of human migration appear strangely sinister, even intolerable. The latest frontier is mega-cities like Lagos and Mumbai, ant-hills on the plain. City-life, as Wordsworth was already calling it, has become normal life for one half of the world’s human populace. What is striking about it now is the choice that traditionally rural peoples are making to go where the new world is being born instead of staying down on the farm. They are voting with their feet for Godwin’s vision of a better world, against Malthus’s melancholy reflection on starvation as the settled fate of the underclasses. Millions are starving, of course, and their migration like that of birds in autumn is motivated by the lure of greener pastures. Such dreams can turn out to be mirages; in the mega-cities, problems of assimilation to the modern economy make for bare life indeed. Developing nation-states like India and Mexico are slowly but surely accommodating their impoverished natives, alleviating starvation and enabling development in the shanty towns around the ant-hills. And while »subsistence increases« as Malthus put it, it is hardly »in an arithmetical ratio.« Food is not scarce, it is abundant. Its distribution is an issue, however, in a globalizing political economy set on cornering resources for the luxurious use of its kleptocrats, the immigrants of the generation before last. Such is the circle of life in the New World Order. The middle term between production and consumption is what Malthus missed in his reckoning with the population bomb. The issues are theological and political at once, two sides of the coin of human identity.

Build me a fifty-foot wall and I will show you a fifty-one foot ladder. This is how the Governor of Arizona answers the nativists and their cry for a new iron curtain on the US border with Mexico. There is no stopping immigration. Controlling it is already impossible in the US, with its thousands of miles of arbitrary national borders top and bottom, lines of political settlements long past. Where does California stop and Baja California begin? Border cities like El Paso have always been part of larger urban formations that include notionally Mexican territory like Juarez. Nuevo Laredo is to Laredo, Texas as East Berlin was to West. For many the border is a half-way house to greener pastures. Codependency characterizes the relations between the states concerned. Without the labor of its twelve million illegal immigrants, mostly Mexican and Central American, US subsistence would not increase in Malthus’s terms. For it is cheap food and oil that grease the capitalist way. The manual labor involved is dirty work that somebody has got to do. The captains of industry know this perfectly well, and so do their shareholders and politicians. Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican who ought to know, opines that without its immigrant labor, the New York economy would collapse. The situation in Europe, with its low native birth-rate, is perhaps more dramatic, but it is not qualitatively different. Going along with immigration is not a choice at all, it is an established habit of human civilization as we know it. Men from the South have replaced Malthus’s intrepid Men of the North as the invaders of our settled arrangements. They are heroic figures in some of the same ways, risk-takers and aspirants to a larger idea of human possibility. They measure the limits of our sense of what it means to be human.