"But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus-population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost."
—Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1
"The surplus army of the unemployed is today more surplus than ever. Major segments of it are no longer relevant to the dominant processes of production. Larger and larger numbers of blacks, Hispanics, women, teenagers, the elderly, and the disabled are no longer necessary to the labor force. Maintaining their children is no longer necessary for the reproduction of the labor force, because they will no longer be "in" it. The homeless are the surplus of the surplus, the outer margin of the marginal."
—Peter Marcuse, Homelessness is a Product, printed in Christianity and Crisis, 1988
"Part of the explanation for the meager support for those consigned by the capitalist system to the reserve army of labor is an ideologically-driven notion that has taken deep root among the U.S. population. The problems of the poor, according to this view, are mainly due to their own failings—they are lazy or just haven't had the foresight to get a good education, or had children when they were too young. This perverse logic, that an essential component of the economic system—produced and continually reproduced by capitalism—is somehow the fault of the least powerful, is also internalized by the poor themselves. Even if the myth were true, it would still be immoral to deny adequate shelter, food, and healthcare to the children of such "deficient" parents, or to the "failed" individuals themselves, for that matter. Racism also plays its part, with the misperception among many whites that welfare is a program mainly for minorities."
—Fred Magdoff and Harry Magdoff, Disposable Workers, Today's Reserve Army of Labor, Monthly Review, 2004
This morning in my Streetpapers, Poverty, and Homelessness class I got to fill up a white board at UW with the above rendition of how the surplus labor army functions in relation to homelessness. To the left, you see poorly drawn figures representing a welfare mom being forced off TANF into the workforce, homelessness, and the prison-industrial-complex, all loosely grouped near a "stick" and peripheral to the reserve labor force itself, and then of course you have the jobs that workers and those more actively in reserve are competing for, appropriately labeled with a "carrot." And we talked about the effect all of this has on wages.
We considered what happens, in such a supply and demand based system, when government policies make housing an increasingly expensive speculative commodity, and when the feds disinvest in housing.
And then I talked about the underground economy, much of which is criminalized, and taught them a little latin.
I got a little carried away. I think I scared some of them.
We contrasted Peter Marcuse's essentially Marxist approach to understanding homelessness with the liberal NAEH-inspired Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness approach, which was represented by a Social Work Today interview with NAEH founder Nan Roman.
The contrast is illuminating. In Marcuse's formulation, "When housing is only provided for profit, those who cannot provide others with profit get no housing." In his world view, we live within a barbarous system that simply discards those whose existence has little prospect of ever contributing to someone else's bottom line.
Roman, on the other hand, sees homelessness as some sort of big bureaucratic misunderstanding, wherein resources are simply mis-allocated because the technocrats haven't managed to get it right yet. Homelessness gets created "not because anyone is evil, but because everyone is pressed for resources.” And the solution lies in "a reallocation of funds and a rethinking. Thinking smarter. Using our money smarter.”
I described the difference between these views as this: "one recognizes the existence of evil, and the other does not."
I asked them to consider whether, given all this, the following several sentences make any sense at all:
“Homelessness in the scope of things is a pretty small problem,” says Roman. “We ought to be able to solve it. It’s not poverty, it’s not housing—it’s related to those problems, but it’s much smaller than any one of them. We ought to be able to solve it.”
Finally, I asked them to ponder the problem of why the Federal Government would promote Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness on the one hand, and simultaneously pursue policies that increase the desperation of the poor.
It's like a zen koan, I said. It seems like an imponderable, nonsensical, contradictory proposition, but if you think about it long enough, it may lead to enlightenment.