Photo: Cordelia Scaife May, billionaire heiress of the Mellon family
By Alex Meins
Anti-immigrant bigotry is commonly associated with white rural communities, a stereotype that obscures the financiers behind the organizations that propagandize that brand of racism among this population. In a rare exposé on one of these capitalists, the New York Times recently published a report on Cordelia Scaife May, the Pittsburgh-based billionaire heiress of the Mellon family, who was preoccupied with the myth of overpopulation, a fear of which motivated her to push for further reactionization of the state through anti-immigrant organizations.
In private correspondences to capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and Helen Clay Frick, May espoused how she thought the US was “being invaded on all fronts” by “Orientals,” Filipinos, and Mexicans, who, according to her, pose “the most dangerous contribution…having higher birth rates than that of the native population.” May was always obsessed with the idea of non-Anglo races of people demographically outnumbering and doing away with her kin. For her, the theory of overpopulation served to rationalize the hunger and misery of the masses as the result of some external law of nature to divert attention away from imperialism’s role.
The effects of May’s anti-immigrant political work, which began in the 1970s, continue to bear rotten fruit today. Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers and El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius both shared May’s fear of an “invasion” of working class people from Latin America. Sensational “illegal immigrant crime” stories fill the airwaves, as journalists, politicians, and lobbyists depict immigration with fantastical accounts of border cases, vigilante lawmen, and unscrupulous bandits. These stories seek to justify the tens of millions of dollars funneled into Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol (CPB), which operate not to reduce the flow of migration, but to crack down on the oppressed nations of Latin America as well as to maintain and entrench the existing pattern whereby US employers are provided with cheap labor.
May and Her Introduction to Overpopulation
In her youth May was drawn to conservation, bird watching, hiking, and other naturalist pursuits. Her mother was an avid drinker and father was usually absent on business, so May found herself raised by maids and her aunt. The latter, a member of Planned Parenthood, introduced May to ideas around overpopulation, eugenics, and to Margaret Sanger, who had declared support for sterilization around the same time saying “more children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief issue of birth control.” This would prove to be influential to the young May, who become the President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and whose first charitable foundation would go on to heavily donate money to other family planning initiatives
Thomas Malthus first forwarded the idea that the world had “natural limits” or finite “carrying capacity” in terms of how much of the human population it could support in the late 18th century. He proposed the reactionary idea, already dismissed by bourgeois scientists at the time, that population increased at a faster rate than the ability to produce food. He wrote that any attempts to ameliorate the poverty of working-class living would spell ruin, in what he called the “Tragedy of the Commons.”
Marx and Engels came to deal with Malthusians in their time, calling Malthus’s theory on overpopulation a “sin against science.” Malthus’s theory, they said, neglected how only some land is cultivated for food and that advances in technology and organization would make less land necessary to produce the same amount of food. Engels also pointed out that the condition of “overpopulation” was in fact unemployment, which exists to maintain a high rate of exploitation by having a large pool of relatively impoverished masses who are willing to work for the lowest wages and longest hours. The hunger felt by millions was not for lack of food, as there was plenty of it to go around, but for lack of jobs the capitalist economy could provide to give workers the wages needed to buy food.
The Postwar Period
May came into her adult years in the 1960s as neo-Malthusianism was seeing a resurgence, parallel with anti-imperialist struggles growing internationally in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrilch, published in 1968, hypothesized massive famine and larger use of natural resources to a point of permanently devastating the world if the worlds ruling classes did not take up the cause of limiting population growth. In an attempt to regain control over colonies and semi-colonies, the imperialist bourgeoisie launched several NGOs and government initiatives to promote and implement population control policies, led by the UN Fund for Population Activities, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the US Agency for International Development.
May herself was on the Population Council with John D. Rockefeller and International Planned Parenthood Federation. The Fords, besides their fondness for Adolf Hitler and fascism, also spent millions on these family planning initiatives. For the richest billionaires of the time, it was clear the threat that “overpopulation” posed to them: “Hundreds of millions of people in the world are hungry. In their desperation, they are increasingly susceptible to communist propaganda… our way of life, if not the existence of ourselves and our children, is at stake.”
The imperialist initiatives that May bankrolled were no less than genocidal campaigns. In the oppressed nations and lowest sectors of the working class, around 65,000 were compulsory sterilized in the US, with 20% of all married Black women being sterilized by 1971. In Puerto Rico, a colony of the US, a third of childbearing women were sterilized by 1968. The imperialists and reactionary bourgeoisie saw this as a way to extinguish rebellion. In Peru, fascist president Alberto Fujimori carried out his genocidal war on Indo-Peruvians who made up the strategic base of the People’s War there, and up to a million indigenous women were sterilized.
The main method that the NGOs May bankrolled used for sterilization was the “slurry” (transcervical installation), a cement that was introduced to the cervix, which would block the egg from reaching the womb once inside the fallopian tubes.
But as compulsory sterilization was protested and the bourgeoisie distanced itself from using it as policy, May found fewer friends institutionally and began calling for other means to accomplish her vile objectives. Her argument came to be that because “we” emit so much carbon dioxide, letting immigrants in and continuing to let them have children when they “have higher birth rates” would be to make the problem worse. One of her organizations argued, “US population growth explains the preponderance of growth in our national energy consumption.” Another organization May bankrolled likewise argued that, “when immigrants come to the United States, they do not maintain the old lifestyle of their home country. They begin to adapt to the American lifestyle. As they do, they become greater consumers and damagers of natural resources; their individual rate of environment degradation increases.”
Funding the Modern Nativist Movement
National oppression of Latin American immigrants and Chicanos of the southwestern United States has been particularly directed towards the proletarian sectors through immigration controls, which serve the purpose of keeping a flow of labor domesticated and timid with the threat of deportation. Mexican workers have catalyzed economic growth in the US economy since 1848, and have been the targets of Jim Crow-style lynching and segregation for just as long, particularly in Texas. The annexation of Texas itself was a bid of the Southern states to expand the scope of slavery.
Despite the racist hysteria against them, Mexican workers have often been useful enough to capitalists in the southwest to prevent long-term pogroms against them, even while Chinese workers were being subjected to reactionary terror elsewhere. When the Great Depression hit, Mexicans were forced to feel the blow of nativist reaction when Congress approved the expulsion of more than half a million people.
These laws which enshrined the right to expel labor en masse, to organize repression along national lines, helped ensure capitalists’ enormous leverage over the labor market and worker mobility. But for May this was not enough, who resented the repeal of national quotas in 1965. May responded by giving $180 million to eugenicist John Tanton and former capitalist owner of Gulf Oil and executive member of Planned Parenthood Sidney Swensrud to form Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
First through her Laurel Foundation and then later through the Colcom Foundation, May gave money for campaigns that included the reactionary law to make US English the “official language” of 22 states and to divest from bilingual programs, to increase border enforcement and militarization for the creation of “ask for paper” laws which permit immigration police to pull over and investigate any who are suspected to be undocumented. Most recently in Alabama and elsewhere, her money helped make it a crime for the undocumented to work, travel, or own a home. The political sea change brought by the use of these dollars and hired hands helped create the conditions that led to the election of President Donald Trump and a growing armed fascist movement, both civilian and governmental, which continues to target oppressed nations and immigrants.
May exemplifies how the imperialist bourgeoisie, in its fears of overpopulation, have pushed forward the reactionization of the state as part of externalizing the cause of crises they generate as a doomed class.