When remembered at all, Edward Abbey is mostly thought of as an environmentalist and anarchist but there is no gainsaying the racism and xenophobia on display in his 1983 essay, “Immigration and Liberal Taboos.” The opinion piece was originally solicited by the New York Times, which ultimately declined to publish it — or to pay him the customary kill fee. It was subsequently rejected by Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Mother Jones and Playboy before finally being published in the Phoenix New Times as “The Closing Door Policy.”
Various white nationalist blogs applaud what they view as Abbey’s foresightedness and forthrightness regarding immigration, presumably oblivious to how those views relate to his ideas about wealth inequality, industrial development and authoritarianism. Conversely, Abbey fans on the left who seek to insulate his nature writing from the taint of his anti-immigrant bigotry ignore the way in which, as Michael Potts put it, “a xenophobic and racist image of the immigrant as pollution… map[s] cultural and ethnic prejudices on to an idealised landscape.” (Dumping Grounds: Donald Trump, Edward Abbey and the Immigrant as Pollution) Abbey’s admirers on both the right and the left thus resort either to blinkers or lame apologetic to redeem him for their political preferences.
My interpretation is that Abbey was a curmudgeon and contrarian whose intended target was liberal hypocrisy. Immigrants were merely “collateral damage” of his colorful diatribes. In the pursuit of being provocative, though, he revealed more than he bargained for about his prejudices. It is precisely this flawed complexity, though, that makes Abbey’s writing a kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the dire social hieroglyphics of our time. Presumably, Abbey did not think of himself as racist. He was indignant when accused of racism. But the institutions of the society he grew up in transmit racism in their DNA.
The purported manifesto of the alleged El Paso terrorist, Patrick Crusius, contains passages that Alexander Kaufman at HuffPost and Natasha Lennard at The Intercept have labelled “eco-fascist.” The manifesto author’s “solution” to environmental degradation and resource depletion is to “get rid of enough people” so that “our way of life can become more sustainable.”
Citing David Brooks, Jeffrey Tucker at the American Institute for Economic Education calls these views “anti-pluralist” and “anti-modern.” More fundamentally, Tucker sees them as “anti-capitalist.” Ironically, though, the manifesto makes no case for either fascist or anti-capitalist system change. Extermination is offered as a way of preserving the status quo in the face of corporations’, governments’ and the average American’s unwillingness to change.
While the El Paso terrorist’s manifesto is linked to and defined by a singular act of violence, Abbey’s essay stands within a body of work that situates, elaborates, reinforces, qualifies and may or may not redeem its sins and omissions. Abbey’s objection to industrial and population growth promoted by “cornucopia economists of the ever-expanding economy” is not a one-off aimed at immigrants but is a central theme of his writing. An image he repeats in several essays is of growth as cancerous madness. “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,” he wrote in “Arizona: How big is big enough?”
Actually, cancer cells don’t have ideologies, which curiously makes Abbey’s maxim more apt. Cancer cells neither know what they are doing nor ask why they are doing it. They just carry out the instructions in their mutated DNA. Furthermore, “growth” — that is to say population growth – is never for the sake of population growth. It is presumably for the sake of raising the value of real estate, expanding markets for retail sales and providing a broader and deeper labor supply.
Similarly, economic growth is ultimately not for the sake of economic growth but for the sake of job creation, enhancing return on investments and/or forestalling a breakdown of social stability. As Simon Kuznets pointed out long ago, the organic analogy of “growth” is a poor fit for economic activity because what “grows” is not an organism or a population of like organisms but an artificial index of successive, non-identical composites of diverse goods and services.
One might say, however, that economic growth is for the sake of population growth and population growth is for the sake of economic growth (which is for the sake of population growth… ad infinitum). This circular reasoning more closely fits an earlier formulation of Abbey’s maxim: “They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque will not be better cities to live in when their populations are doubled again and again.” In other words, the motivation for growth is delusional; the consequence is malignant.
What makes Abbey’s metaphorically-dubious proposition curiously apt is that the core propositions of market fundamentalism are themselves dubious, question-begging metaphors: “survival of the fittest,” “competitive equilibrium,” “tragedy of the commons,” and “man’s triumph over nature.” In a recent article, “Karl Polanyi’s Genealogy of Utopian Liberalism,” Christopher England examined the ideology that emerged in the late 18th century regarding the political aspects of population and poverty with particular attention to Polanyi’s analysis of that literature in The Great Transformation.
Although commonly attributed to Malthus, the core arguments and naturalistic, pseudo-scientific framing trace back to Joseph Townsend’s 1786 tract, “A Dissertation on the Poor Laws by a Well-Wisher to Mankind.” In that tract, Townsend recounted – and embellished — a story about goats and dogs on one of the Juan Fernandez islands in the South Pacific off the coast of Chile to illustrate his contention that society would be best served by leaving poor people to the discipline of the labor market and the perils of starvation.
According to the account of Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, upon which Townsend relied, the explorer Juan Fernandez left goats on the island as provision for subsequent voyages. The goats propagated freely until the viceroy of Peru dispatched a colony of dogs to the island in an attempt to eradicate the goats lest they furnish provisions to enemy ships or pirates. Instead of totally eliminating the goats, however, the dogs only succeeded in making the goats scarcer, “the dogs being incapable of pursuing them among the fastnesses where they live, these animals leaping from one rock to another with surprising agility” according to Juan and Ulloa. Townsend elaborated:
Had they been totally destroyed, the dogs likewise must have perished. But as many of the goats retired to the craggy rocks, where the dogs could never follow them, descending only for short intervals to feed with fear and circumspection in the rallies, few of these, besides the careless and the rash, became a prey; and none but the most watchful, strong, and active of the dogs could get a sufficiency of food. Thus a new kind of balance was established. The weakest of both species were among the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.
Thus Juan and Ulloa’s sparse account of a standoff between dog and goat populations was transformed by Townsend into a morality tale about survival of the fittest of the two populations. Why Townsend’s fable was as persuasive to audiences as Polanyi and England contend it was is a long story best told by those two authors.
The short version is that people are distressed by scenes of suffering and welcome solace in the thought that either the hardship is deserved punishment for some earlier transgression or that it will eventually be compensated by future reward. Reward and punishment bestow an aura of meaning to the otherwise inexplicable suffering.
The technical term for this kind of sadistic wishful thinking is “theodicy” and it became a staple of orthodox political economy. The corollary to the stoic justification of other people’s misery is, of course, the axiom that public actions intended to alleviate suffering will invariably, as Townsend put it, “promote the evils they mean to remedy, and aggravate the distress they were intended to relieve.” Analyses that refute these baleful platitudes have a way of being forgotten or even reformulated to conform to the conventional framework.
Townsend deftly fused the punishment and reward poles of the theodicy loophole, reproaching the drunkenness, profligacy, indolence, dishonesty of the poor such that, “[i]t seems to be a law of nature, that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, and the most ignoble offices in the community.”
It is good the poor are reduced to such wretchedness. “The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased,” Townsend continued, “whilst the more delicate are not only relieved from drudgery, and freed from those occasional employments which would make them miserable, but are left at liberty, without interruption, to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions, and most useful to the state.” Such a philosophical outlook!
If that cheerful state of affairs is not enough, consider the benefits the prospect of starvation confers on the poor themselves: “Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.” Hunger is the most equitable, effectual and suitable method for instructing the dishonest or neglectful worker that “the first duty required from a servant is prompt, chearful, and hearty obedience.”
A prime example of the recuperation of a refutation is the fate of William Forster Lloyd’s “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population” from 1833. Those lectures contained the image Garrett Hardin made famous 135 years later as the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin misinterpreted and/or misrepresented the point of Lloyd’s image. Lloyd compared the field for employment of labor to an unregulated commons as a rebuttal to the Malthus/Townsend hypothesis that the prospect of starvation could act as a check to unsustainable growth of population. On the contrary, Lloyd maintained, the dynamics of overgrazing an unregulated commons would act as a perverse incentive to do exactly that. Lloyd’s suggested remedy was a sort of endowment, modeled on customs in Norway, to encourage young people to postpone marriage until they have accumulated a sufficient nest egg.
Lloyd maintained that some inequality of wealth was necessary to provide incentives but that, contrary to Townsend’s doctrine, extreme inequality was not only ineffectual but detrimental. Hardin’s reinterpretation of the tragedy of the commons, however, reverts back to Townsend’s conclusions about individual suffering providing a check to population while collective provision would encourage profligacy and indolence — precisely the conclusions that Lloyd’s model repudiated.
Seventy-five years ago, Karl Polanyi laid out what was at stake in the contest between fascism, socialism and liberalism. Whether his conclusions ring true today is an open question. But the historical insight that brought him to those conclusions is essential to understanding our present predicament — perhaps more urgent now than ever.
Christopher England’s essay explicates what Polanyi saw as “the mind’s ambivalent response” of “unbounded hope and limitless despair,” which constituted “the mainspring of the metaphysical forces that secretly sustained the positivists and utilitarians.” England defined that ambivalent response as reflecting a “theodicy of economic life”:
[Polanyi’s] reading of the Speenhamland debacle shows that in asking the question provoked by poverty — “Where do the poor come from?” — the unspoken issue at stake is what the late Peter Berger calls the ancient core of theodicy: “Why does God permit some men to eat and others to go hungry?” This dilemma is, in turn, tied up with an even thornier issue, “Why do we suffer?” With the arrival of industrial society and the reconceptualization of the economy as the focal point of political life, the old theological questions took on an economic guise. A new style of political economy came to the fore, imbued with an acute sense of desperation and a theoretical framework capable of justifying dramatic political action.
Voltaire ridiculed theodicy in Candide, published in 1759, the year after Juan and Ulloa’s account of the goats and dogs was translated into English. Candide’s tutor, Dr. Pangloss, a philosophical charlatan, repeated his “optimistic” nostrum at every opportunity:
“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. … they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”
When Candide later encounters a syphilis-ravaged Pangloss, the latter rationalizes his condition as “a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds.” He later asserts the necessity of misfortune, “for private misfortunes are public benefits; so that the more private misfortunes there are, the greater is the general good.”
Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments appeared in the same year as Candide. In it, Smith told the tale of the “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition.” This young man, “feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble….” Thus he embarks on a life of toil and stinginess to accumulate the wealth that will enable him to someday live in luxurious sloth. Alas, he is deceived:
…in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with… that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquility of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys.
However, Smith rationalized this outcome with an optimistic paradox: “And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” Smith celebrated as a spur to industry the theodicy Voltaire had mocked.
There was nothing natural or inevitable about the institutionalization of this economic theodicy. As Polanyi pointed out 75 years ago:
Economic history reveals that the emergence of national markets was in no way the result of the gradual and spontaneous emancipation of the economic sphere from governmental control. On the contrary, the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends.
Over the last 40 years there has again been “conscious and often violent intervention” by governments to impose market discipline on society. We are reaping the harvest of that intervention today in the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions, the uprooting of populations, the abject dismantling of social trust and the proliferation of reactionary Malthusian populisms. The cancer has metastasized.
We were warned. My intuition tells me there is no digging out of the hole the death spasm of Utopian [neo]Liberalism has dug us into – “because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” Setting aside fantasies of a magical, dialectical cure (“arise, ye prisoners of starvation… “), our best hope is for palliative care. A start would be to eradicate every vestige of economic theodicy (or any theodicy for that matter) from our public discourse. That won’t be easy. It probably can’t be done. But it gives us something useful to do other than passively watching civilization collapse.