This is a review of the above named article by Alberto Alesina (Harvard Economics Department) which appeared in Science 25 October 2013. It is an interesting article, not least because it is illustrative of Marx’s view that bourgeois economics ceased to be a science after the time of David Ricardo and became merely an exercise in apologetics for capitalism but also because it attempts to answer the question “How did the Black Plague change work and family opportunities for women” as relates to the rise of capitalism.
This is a short summary overview of the article in six sections:
1. Income per capita (total economic output divided by total population) equals the wealth of a nation. The wealth increases only if the output increases faster than the population. Historically the relation of output and the population was stable, resulting in social immobility. Two revolutions changed this. First, the “Malthusian” revolution due to the Black Death slowed down population growth. Second, the Industrial Revolution increased output. The first revolution was a precondition for the second because it allowed income to go above subsistence level creating a demand for goods and technology that “pulled away” from agriculture creating the conditions for the birth of modern capitalism. An important consequence of all this was the increase in the number of women in the work force. [This section puts forth the thesis of Alesina’s article].
2. The author now states Malthus [1766-1834] made a great discovery–i.e. “population growth is continuously held in check by the resources available to sustain it”– and this hinders social progress. Two observations here: 1) this common sense self-evident observation was hardly unique to Malthus and is not what he is famous for (which is the preposterous unscientific observation that food supply increases arithmetically and population geometrically); 2) a stable population does not of necessity prevent social progress. The article next informs us that Europe had stable living standards until struck by the Black Death (bubonic plague) in 1348-1350 when a third of the population died. The result of the pandemic was a labour shortage and a surplus of land to be worked. This caused wages to go up, especially in agriculture, and opened up opportunities for women to work in the fields, giving them less time for child care, thus leading to a rise in the age of marriage and a lowering of the fertility rate and a slowing of future population growth. I am confused about the “rise of wages” because most agricultural workers in the 14th century were bound serfs not wage workers. Craftsmen did make more money as workers in the towns and cities but the serfs benefited by being able to demand a greater share of the product rather than “wages” per se(although in some areas a minority of paid agricultural workers did exist). In fact it was an attempt to suppress gains by the serfs and peasants that lead to the peasant wars which broke out after the plague years.
There is no reason to refer to this phenomenon as a “Malthusian” revolution. In the first place, four hundred years separate Malthus from the Black Death and secondly Malthus is not really entitled to have anything named after him as he was not an original thinker and plagiarised all his major ideas from earlier writers and put them in the service of the landowning class as opposed to the up and coming bourgeoisie of his day. Marx points out (Theories of Surplus Value, Vol.2) that Malthus got his ideas mostly from a little known writer on agriculture and economics, James Anderson (1739-1808). Marx wrote, “Malthus used the Andersonian theory of rent to give his population law, for the first time, both an economic and a real (natural-historical) basis, while the nonsense about geometrical and arithmetical progression borrowed from earlier writers, was a purely imaginary hypothesis (chapter ix, sec. 1).” Malthus never credited the authors whose ideas he copied. That he is still taken seriously by some modern economists is evidence of the ideological rather than scientific role of the discipline under capitalism.
3. The article also points out that the need for child labour increased due to the shortage of agricultural labour and this implies an incentive for an increase in fertility– counteracting the decrease in fertility implied by women working in the fields and thus unavailable for child care. Almost all the sentences used by the author to advance his ideas are qualified and speculative: e.g. higher wages “could have” effected fertility and “might have” increased fertility. These factors “may have played out” in different ways in different parts of Europe. A useful theory cannot be based on “could have” and “may have” speculations. He now wants to ask “why” wages and fertility “could have” been different in different parts of Europe– particularly the difference between North Western and South Eastern Europe.
4. His answer is also speculative as he calls it “one possibility.” That is, the (non-existent) “Malthusian” revolution brought about income growth before the Industrial revolution. This is because after the Black Death, fertility in South Eastern Europe returned to pre-plague levels but increased “substantially” in North Western Europe. “Not surprisingly, this part of Europe led the spectacular rise of modern capitalism.” The phrase “not surprisingly” is begging the question. Growth in fertility was an important factor in the growth of capitalism. After a growth of fertility in North Western Europe there was the rise of capitalism.
5. Regardless, the author thinks that the Black Death and the “Malthusian” revolution were only two factors in the rise of capitalism in North Western Europe. He says “one possibility” for another. The tipping factor was the Protestant Revolution.
6. Regarding the Protestant Revolution (i.e. the Reformation), the author, who mentions Max Weber, credits Lutheranism with introducing the ideas of an accumulation of human capital. The concept of “human capital” is not worked out. Capital accumulation (money for investment in commerce) based on frugality and hard work by individuals, implying that one has been chosen as one of God’s elect, was a feature of Protestantism. Actually this so called “Protestant Ethic” as a factor in the rise of capitalism was credited by Weber to the influence of Calvinism not Lutheranism (of which he took a dim view). The author suggests that perhaps the influence of the Reformation on the development of capitalism was not due to the religious doctrine as such but due to the emphasis on economic growth that Protestantism developed. A strange suggestion since Weber’s point was that the economic emphasis was a deduction from Calvinist religious principals. Calvinism was based on a doctrine of predestination and economic success was evidence (but not proof) that one was predestined to be one of the elect (who gets to Heaven)– the more economically and socially successful one was the better the evidence of future salvation.
I must conclude that this article doesn’t provide any evidence whatsoever for any of its major contentions. It doesn’t even mention the role of the discovery of the New World and the wealth that flooded Europe as a result of the dispossession of the native populations, nor the enclosure movements by which peasants were dispossessed of the commons or driven off their land which was then developed as private property while the dispossessed were forced to become laborers working for others on the pain of imprisonment or death. The article is highly speculative and inspired by discredited and unscientific notions of a nonexistent “Malthusian” revolution and leaves us as much in the dark after reading it as before as to the actual influence of women and their fertility on the rise of modern capitalism.Tags: Review
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This post was written by Thomas Riggins