Malthus and the Locusts



Fortunate are contemporary societies that can afford to discuss, philosophically, whether it was God who died or whether it was Nietzsche

the grasshoppers

As I write, I see the threat of the arrival of a swarm of hungry locusts in Brazil on the news. Yes, grasshoppers! We hadn't even been able to celebrate Abraham Weintraub's departure from here, there's a cloud of so-called orthopters to give greater drama to expectations regarding the near future. Finally, another shovel of lime on the tomb of hope: cursed be Pandora's curiosity!

The more our national reality approaches a dystopian plot, the greater our poetic license in comparisons that, before, would not make the slightest sense. Thus, it will be easy to understand (and forgive) the reason for the associations that some (many) will make (and are already making) between the possible arrival of the locusts and the ten biblical plagues in Egypt. All that was missing was the plague of locusts to give a more apocalyptic air to the already dismal Brazilian situation. Now there's no more!

the scholastic

It is a fact of little concern that the defense of a secular State coexists with the tensions derived from religious freedom. This is one of the phenomena of democracy that, in the case of Brazil, can be illustrated by the existence of an evangelical group in parliament, significant in number, composed of politicians from different parties. The really worrying fact is when, reinforcing the obscurantism in which we are sunk, scholasticism presents itself as the State's answer to the problems of our time.

Due to a defect in my background, I'm going to seek shelter in Political Economy. With Adam Smith we learn the importance of the division and specialization of labor in the wealth of nations. Social conflicts were not denied in his work, but due to the mystical and mythical force of an “invisible hand”, the “market”, idealized and deified by Smith, would have the capacity to harmonize these conflicts. In the end, our individual, selfish action would be redeemed by the fully functioning free market. Adam Smith, professor of logic at the University of Glasgow, tried but failed to break free of the scholastic's cage.

Paradoxically, it was the Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus who taught that “playing Pollyana” was not an option, thus anticipating, by more than 100 years, a criticism of Eleanor H. Porter's classic.

Malthus is generally presented as a pioneer in the critique of Jean-Baptiste Say's equilibrating and misguided law of markets and one of the first – if not the first – to intuit the possible problems of insufficient effective demand and, as such, a forerunner of of Keynes. But, it is true that he is best known for his population theory in which: “Population, when uncontrolled, grows in a geometric progression. Livelihoods grow only in an arithmetic progression” (Malthus, 1996, p. 246). In short, a dark future: more people than food equals hunger, wars and plagues.

A catapult to contemporary reality

Two types of control would fit the problems pointed out by Malthus, namely: preventive and positive. Regarding preventive controls, we can say that Malthus also anticipated Minister Damares Alves, proposing sexual abstinence as a harm reduction policy. With regard to positive controls, these would be more costly for the poor and unhappy, on whom misery, hunger and plague would fall most severely.

This Malthusian idea of ​​positive controls works like a temporal catapult that hits Brazil in the face: Bolsonaro, new coronavirus, scientific denialism, hate cabinet, crack, militias, censorship, neo-fascism... Ironically, we have a good supplier of hydroxychloroquine and that's enough for the president, because “God is Brazilian and the cure is there”.

Much has already been written about President Bolsonaro's complete lack of preparation to deal with the pandemic that has plagued Brazil. His public speeches are revolting and just to sharpen the bile of those who still have stomachs and livers, it is worth remembering that, for him, in public speeches: the virus was (is) oversized and, therefore, we cannot enter into a neurosis as if it were the end of the world. It is necessary to stop this hysteria encouraged, including, by some governors to harm the economy.

Even when it was impossible to deny the health calamity, Bolsonaro managed to surprise: “I am not a gravedigger”; “everyone dies one day” and “I am the Messiah, but I don't do miracles”. All, I insist, public speeches by a president of the republic who, with his “athletic record”, in case he was contaminated, he would not need to worry.

Just for God?

Fortunate are contemporary societies that can afford to discuss, philosophically, whether it was God or Nietzsche who died. Sad Brazil where, who dies is the people, notably the poor, black and vulnerable.

Since the quixotic windmills still prevent a coordinated articulation of the progressive forces of this country to organically advance with the impeachment agenda and since the democratic institutions of law continue with their deafening silence, we can only go, from text to text, from live em live, repeating the litany, cheering so the locusts don't come and Malthus doesn't win.

*Joelson Gonçalves de Carvalho is professor of economics at the Department of Social Sciences at UFSCar.


MALTHUS, TR Principles on political economy and considerations on their practical application: essay on the population. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, 1996. (The Economists Collection).

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