The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Overpopulation
– Underdevelopment?

Nov 30, 1984

The second World Population Conference, held in August in Mexico City, was the opportunity once again for the media and the governments of the world’s richest countries, led by the U.S., to raise the problem of the “overpopulation” of the world. By this, it is usually understood that, if there is poverty and famine in a large part of the planet, it is because the underdeveloped countries continue to have too high a birth rate and too great a growth of their population. With a bigger and bigger population, these countries must devote a larger and larger part of their resources just to feeding their people. This prevents investment and economic development, and the consequent economic stagnation makes the situation worse with the continuing growth of the population.

For a decade or so, the solution proposed by the representatives of the well-nourished and wealthy imperialist countries was a generalization of birth control, including, if necessary, its imposition on the populations of the underdeveloped countries (through quasi-forced sterilizations and so on).

The current conference saw a somewhat different position taken by the representatives of the imperialist powers. For example, A.W. Clausen, president of the World Bank, in addressing the conference, indicated that while he still saw the need for population control programs, he did not think that was sufficient to address the problem: “No one would argue that slower population growth can alone ensure development. But the evidence is clear that in many developing countries, development will be postponed indefinitely unless slower population growth can be achieved soon.”

But the chief U.S. delegate, James Buckley, reversed the stand taken by the U.S. in the previous conference, arguing that at present there is no world population “crisis.” He said that “population growth is, of itself, neither good nor bad,” and pointed out that “as opportunities and the standard of living rise, the birth rate falls.” Of course, Buckley’s speech had in part the purpose of propaganda for the U.S. (In fact, it was even an electoral propaganda for Reagan, given the anti-abortion stance taken by Buckley.) Nevertheless, his conclusion was that the problem is to develop the economies of the underdeveloped countries, and he insisted that the growth of the population need not be an obstacle to that.

Buckley used these points to support his main argument – that allowing free reign to so-called “free enterprise” is the key to economic development for the Third World today, just as it was for the industrial powers of Western Europe and the U.S. in the period of their development. He insisted that the state apparatus in the underdeveloped countries today should refrain from any control of, or interference with, the economy and free enterprise. In this, he says, lies the path for the underdeveloped countries to solve the problem of supporting their populations.

Once again, these arguments at the conference raise the questions: First, is population growth the main obstacle to the economic development of the underdeveloped world? Second, can the free development of private enterprise allow the underdeveloped countries to develop, escape famine and adequately nourish their populations?

Overpopulation or Underdevelopment?

Buckley is correct when he argues that population growth does not, in itself, stand in the way of economic growth and development. There are a number of indications which illustrate this.

Generally, the imperialist countries are more densely populated than the underdeveloped countries; yet no one speaks of them as being “overpopulated.” The most densely populated continent – by far – is non-Russian Europe with about 242 people per square mile, compared to Asia with 114, Africa with 29, and South America with 28. Even North America, with a density of only 36 people per square mile, is more densely populated than Africa or South America. But the population density of Europe has not kept it from achieving a high level of development. Europe, excluding the USSR, with only 7 per cent of the world’s total land area, and with its high population density, produces about a quarter of the world’s wheat and more than half of its potatoes. Clearly it does not have the level of hunger of Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

In fact, many of the countries which have achieved relatively high standards of living also have high population densities. West Germany has a population density of 643 per square mile and a Gross National Product (GNP) per capita of $10,509; for the Netherlands, the density is 893, and GNP per capita is $10,240; and for Japan, 803 and $8,800. On the other hand, Mexico has a density of just 88 and a GNP per capita of $2,045; Bolivia – 13 and $692; Ethiopia – 64 and $118; and Mozambique – 40 and $200. Compare the following: the United Kingdom, with a population density of 592 people per square mile, has a GNP per capita of $6,340; India, which is always thought of as the most densely populated areas in the world, has a density of 539, slightly less than the United Kingdom, whose imperialist apologists always try to explain the former colony’s poverty in terms of overpopulation rather than colonial pillage. It’s clear that India’s per capita GNP of $202 must be explained by something other than its so-called overpopulation.

On the scale of the world, it is not true that the rate of population growth is faster than the rate of growth in the production of food. According to the “Global 2000 Report to the President,” commissioned by the Carter administration, and published in 1980, world food production is expected to increase at an average annual rate of 2.2 per cent from 1970 to the year 2000, faster than the world population, which is expected to grow at a 1.7 per cent average annual rate.

Finally, we have every reason to believe that the current rapid population growth is not the basic cause of continuing underdevelopment, but a product of it. That is, the most efficient way for the underdeveloped countries to reduce their high birth rates would be for them to develop their economies. Population control has become automatic in the wealthiest countries of the world, an integral part of the cultural changes inherent in the process of development. In fact, in countries like West Germany and France, today bourgeois policy makers complain that the birth rate has dropped too low. (The German army has extended the length of time of its enlistment of young men; apparently there are too few young Germans to meet its demands.)

So, it is evident that a high population density does not preclude development and a high standard of living; that food production, even by the U.S. government’s conservative estimates, can outpace the present rate of world population growth; and, that far from population growth hindering development, development can be expected to lead to automatic population control without coercion.

“Free Enterprise” – The Medicine which Caused the Disease

Buckley proposed the unleashing of “free enterprise” as the medicine for the problems of the underdeveloped world. What could we expect to see an “unleashed” free enterprise accomplish in the underdeveloped countries?

In the first place, what has it already accomplished where it was “unleashed”? Consider first the example of the U.S. itself. There can be no doubt that so-called “free enterprise” has led to the biggest agglomerations of private wealth in history in the U.S. So if the economic development provided by “free enterprise” were sufficient to satisfy a population’s needs, the U.S. ought to exemplify such a situation. However, in reality no one can deny that there is extensive poverty in the U.S., while certainly no one would say the U.S. is “overpopulated.” The system of free enterprise, while it has its entrepreneurs at one end, has always at the other end its working class, and even a more or less permanently unemployed lumpenproletariat with its poverty the result of the unemployment intrinsic to the system. Thus, free enterprise stands in the way of a higher standard of living for a substantial part of the population, even in the U.S., the bastion of “free enterprise.”

Of course, the suffering of the poor inside the U.S. is not comparable to that in much of the rest of the world. But no one – except maybe a Reagan in his election propaganda – would deny the existence of widespread poverty and misery in the U.S.

It’s true that today free enterprise has developed the potential to feed the population of the world. With its vast expanses of arable land, and with its capital and technology – which were accumulated as the result of the dominance of so-called “American free enterprise” over the rest of the world – the U.S. could produce enough to feed the world, and certainly it could alleviate the current starvation. In the face of mass starvation in other parts of the world, the U.S. government in 1982 held in storage 99 million tons of so-called “surplus” grain. This was several times what was needed to stop the immediate threat of starvation throughout the world. But to do it is another matter.

To use this grain to feed the starving would have meant knocking the bottom out of the world grain market – and almost certain bankruptcy for the 5 huge corporations which control 85 per cent of U.S. grain exports. These corporations, built on the foundation of free enterprise, have grown to enormous size and today stand as an oligopoly in the way of the very survival of millions of Third World people. Instead of trying to develop agricultural production, even instead of sending the already existing surplus grain where people needed it, the U.S. government instituted the PIK (payment-in-kind) program, providing grain instead of cash subsidies to induce U.S. farmers to leave fields fallow, that is, to restrict production further to prop up the market again in the face of international famine.

This is the result of the development of agriculture under the regime of private enterprise: a tremendous potential to solve the immediate and long-term problem of feeding the world is effectively wasted.

In fact, free enterprise, which Buckley advocates as the “medicine” for the disease of underdevelopment in the Third World, is actually the system which dominates most of the underdeveloped countries today. The European and U.S. corporations, which dominate agriculture in much of the Third World, find it more profitable to produce cash crops for export than consumables for the local impoverished population. And thus, over the years they have taken enormous amounts of land in these countries out of the production of food for consumption and turned the land over to the production of crops for export. Mexico, for example, today is forced to import wheat, barley, corn, and rice to feed its people, but not because it could not grow such crops – nor once did not. Rather companies like General Foods, Del Monte, and Campbell’s have taken the land and put it into export crops for the external market like sweet corn, peas, and asparagus. And they are under no constraint to put either their profits or what is produced at the service of the Mexicans who do the work which yields them.

Likewise, much of Africa’s arable land, which once produced crops for local consumption, has been converted by the giants of private enterprise, that is, European and U.S. corporations, to produce primarily crops for export to Europe and North America, crops such as peanuts in Senegal, rubber in Liberia, cocoa in Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast, and palm oil in Nigeria and Dahomey. Again, the Africans do the work and the huge “entrepreneurs” use their freedom to take the products and the profits out of Africa.

In fact, “free enterprise,” which Buckley wants to see “unleashed” in these countries, exists in most of the underdeveloped countries; it has been “unleashed” for a long time now. And it is precisely because of “free enterprise” is free to follow its development that these countries are in their current situation.

Free enterprise does not adequately nourish the people, even inside the borders of the wealthy U.S. Instead of using its finest agricultural technology to feed the world, it places the interests of the big grain companies ahead of those of the starving. And in the Third World, we see it taking and using the land for its own interests on the world market, rather than developing it for the benefit of the people who live and work on it.

In taking over the land and producing for export, the multinational corporations which practice “free enterprise” increasingly destroy the possibility for the people of the underdeveloped countries to produce food for themselves, forcing those countries to import at least some of the staples they need, and aggravating the malnutrition and famine to the extent that those countries don’t have the funds to pay for such imports.

In fact, at every turn we find imperialism – which is a synonym for “free enterprise” – standing behind the problems of the underdeveloped countries. And the solution is not more “free enterprise,” more imperialism, but world socialist revolution to do away with imperialism and lay the basis for the rational development and use of the world’s resources.