This article originally appeared in Dissident Voice on 8/6/2012.
Dealing with superfluous populations has been a vexation shared by all industrial capitalist societies for generations. In other words, the problem for modern rulers and leaders is what to do with societal segments that contribute little to wealth creation by production or consumption. Columbia Professor Emeritus of Sociology Herbert Gans referred to the modern U.S. constituents of these segments as “surplus workers” that eventually become superfluous via indefinite unemployment (1). The “surplus pool” increases in size with the failure by job creators to do what they claim to do. The concept, however, generalizes to any society or state in which the exploitation of land and/or resources is being obstructed by the presence of unnecessary humans.
Throughout history, ruling classes employed a variety of strategies to shrink the surplus pool. In 1788 the British Empire began exporting some of its surplus to Australia in order to establish a new penal colony. The endeavor was delayed by the presence of the indigenous society that needed to be dealt with: one surplus displacing another. Similarly, they and other European empires exported feudal leftovers to the Americas and subsequently established colonies after exterminating the native civilizations we learn about in elementary school.
Other alleviating mechanisms include war enlistment, extreme poverty resulting in death, or illness resulting in death. All three effectively reduce the burden of superfluous populations. Moral traits and altruistic inclinations, however, get in the way sometimes and history does reveal welfare implementations for the indigent, orphaned, and widowed that were often inspired by Abrahamic doctrines.
Enlightenment-era renegotiations of the social contract and the upsurge of global wealth during the rise of industrial capitalism gradually reinforced the notions of not only expecting but demanding the fulfillment of welfare commitments by state governments particularly in Europe. The United States, however, was never as anchored to social obligations as mainland Europe given its comparatively blank sociopolitical history. This contributed to the country’s delayed abolishment of slavery and recognition of worker organization.
The chattel-based planter economy of the early Union along with concurrent industrialization in its northern territories created difficult conditions for poor white farmers. To avoid drowning in economic hardship, the only option was to take part in the drive toward western expansion that was eventually encapsulated in the philosophy of Manifest Destiny. In order for the blossoming nation to move forward with continental ownership, the truly unnecessary Native Americans had to undergo displacement or simple erasure.
20th century dynamics labor-capital dynamics limited the ways in which the United States could deal with its superfluous elements. The Great Depression highlighted the inability to exterminate, export, resettle, or enslave the unemployed. It was during subsequent administrations over several decades that the formalized welfare provisions were enacted which are readily recalled as the New Deal, Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicare, and Medicaid. And of course, consecutive military engagements were able to partially absorb displacement shocks.
These welfare distributions became increasingly important as neoliberalism and financial enterprises began to dominate U.S. policy beginning with the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system in 1973 which allowed multinational corporations to benefit from an unprecedented degree of capital mobility (2). Naturally, domestic labor being restricted by land boundaries and sociocultural beacons was thus unable to sync with overseas investment by U.S. firms. This ultimately contributed to increasing unemployment, downward pressure on wages, poverty, and further dependence on welfare programs. Indeed, Nobel laureate and economist at Columbia University Joseph Stiglitz warned that unaddressed inequality in America, already the worst among industrialized societies, is fostering a resemblance to two-tiered societies of the Third World (3).
Peter Edelman at Georgetown University Law Center has revealed a great deal about current poverty in the U.S. (4) (5). His research demonstrated that as of 2010, 103 million Americans had incomes below twice the poverty line i.e. below $36,000 per year for a family of three. 20 million Americans live in deep poverty which includes incomes below half the poverty line i.e. below $9000 per year for a family of three. These are people that depend on healthcare assistance such as Medicaid, nutritional assistance like food stamps, and tax credits. Research done by the Heritage Foundation estimated that federal welfare spending approached $700 billion in 2010 alone (6).
The growing surplus pool has been a constant irritation to policymakers and business planners seeking to tap into the welfare cashflow. The vast portion of that money that is not filtered through private institutions (e.g. public funded private health coverage) is largely wasted on unnecessary humans. The most prominent effort to correct this blunder is the endeavor to privatize Social Security which happens to be a quite functional, efficient, and well-funded system as Nobel laureate Stiglitz confirmed (7). However, the current implementation sustains beneficiaries without generating very much profit. Allowing them to simply pass would free up potential sources of capital. Another possibility would be for them to take out loans which perhaps can be repaid by their children.
These latter two options, however, would be difficult to implement given their friction with values of sympathy and compassion that reside in the ethos of the general public. That is to say, the moral foundation that sustains welfare spending the U.S. threatens the viability of such measures. In the face of this type of opposition, legislators and executives have resorted to the employment of subversive rhetoric appealing to irrational elements of the human psyche in order to justify institutional oppression of superfluous segments. This includes the exploitation of latent nativism, racism, jingoist nationalism, and religious adherence to the obscure and, in fact, unknowable motives of the “founding fathers.”
The clearest example is undoubtedly the United States penchant for incarceration that disproportionately targets racial minorities as Michelle Alexander’s recent book The New Jim Crow explains in great detail (8) (9). The War on Drugs that was escalated by President Nixon in the 1970s was continued by Presidents Reagan and Clinton with some pretty ugly consequences. The strategy was to impose over-the-top punishments for minor drug offenses overwhelmingly committed by the poor while at the same time demonizing blacks as welfare queens and gangsters. The effect is the underhanded shift of superfluous elements into prison camps where they can perform something comparable to slave labor and simultaneously evade poverty statistics (10). And of course, for efficiency purposes, a portion of the public spending on incarceration is handed to correctional corporations that profit from America’s toughness on crime (11).
The state-initiated demonization of population segments not in accord with neoliberal reforms is not unique to the United States. The Indian government has repeatedly labeled a vast sector of its own population as terrorists in order to justify the use of paramilitary forces to destroy associated rural societies that obstruct economic initiatives. The reactionary group, known as the Maoists, has employed violent tactics in an effort to oppose the corporate and government infiltration of the farmers’ lands (12). For these people, there is no New World or Manifest Destiny to absorb them. The only options aside from succumbing to state violence are to pick up and move into urban slums to find work or to simply commit suicide. Incidentally, the latter option has become a full-blown crisis with a quarter-million farmer suicides since 1995 (13).
However, overt violence like that in India would be intolerable in the United States. Still, there are other tactics aside from incarceration that severely undermine surplus citizens struggling to keep up with the new global economy. Take, for example, the Affordable Care Act which is President Obama’s flagship legislation. Its purpose is to deal with the current healthcare crisis that has left over 50 million without health insurance: 17% of the population. Furthermore, recent estimates link 26,000+ deaths of working-age adults annually to lack of medical insurance (14). To be honest, Obamacare is quite far from solving the actual problem and in my opinion is, in fact, a step in the wrong direction. The fact remains, however, that it would expand the insurance umbrella over millions previously uninsured. Though that insurance may still bankrupt them, it would at least allow them to see a doctor when they’re sick.
The opposition to the health reform has been expectedly silly. Conservatives claim that it’s too expensive a burden for a debt-ridden economy. The latest CBO projections, however, show that Obamacare is likely to reduce the federal deficit by $109 billion over ten years: a modest amount, but a reduction nonetheless (15). Falseness makes a weak argument, so Governor Rick Perry of Texas resorted to evangelical constitutionalism when declaring combat on the new law recently by rejecting federal funding to expand Medicaid. He patriotically refused to “socialize” medicine in the great state of Texas out of respect for the kind of freedom envisioned by the Founding Fathers (16). Unfortunately, Texas happens to be the state with the most egregious coverage gap in the country: 25% uninsured while home to some of nation’s best hospitals. Governor Perry’s refusal to address the problem reflects outright contempt for his state’s unnecessary humans.
So at this juncture we ought to ask ourselves, how far has civilization come in the treatment of underclass constituents? Governor Perry is a small example, but his outlook readily generalizes. He can’t exterminate or export them, but ignoring them seems to work. Though the implications for democracy are frightening, sometimes it’s difficult not to laugh at the irony present in religious devotion to founding principles. To be sure, the poor and/or unemployed are, in a commercial sense, valueless. They effect no labor and they can’t afford to buy any products. The only thing that makes these people necessary is their capacity to cast votes, but only in a functioning democracy. Do we have one? If we could deposit our superfluous population in prison, in war, or underground, would we have one then?