Saturday, April 7, 2007

Zen and the Surplus People Problem

"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.

qui bono.

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.

5 comments:

Dr. Wes Browning said...

I think homelessness arises from the needs of Capitalism but it doesn't profit Capitalism.

Capitalism has created an underclass to provide cheap labor. How does homelessness fit into that, per se? Homeless people make lousy cheap labor. They're cheap, but you get almost no labor out of them. They have no energy, the batteries are depleted, all the time. If I was the malicious intelligent designer behind capitalism I would want a large underclass to provide cheap labor, but I would want housing for them, to guarantee that they are flexible and productive. I would want both cheap and productive. Homelessness is against my interests. The NAEH knows this! They want to end homelessness because it runs counter to the needs of Capitalism itself.

It's like the accidental traits of species that evolve along with the traits that guarantee survival. E.g. the excessive danger to women of childbirth due to their babies having such large heads. Large heads get us intelligence: intelligence good; large heads bad, but come automatically with the higher intelligence.

So homelessness doesn't really profit anyone. It's the conditions that create the underclass that profit a few, and the homelessness is a just an embarrassing incidental product of those conditions. One that NAEH would very much like to correct, to keep from having to tear down the whole system.

Dr. Wes Browning said...

Another way to put all that:

Capitalism wants cheap labor and incidentally wastes people on top of that. Compare what they do to the environment. They need resources, but can't manage to conserve them.

Evil, but not good at it.

Stephanie said...

While I respect Dr. Wes immensely, capitalism does profit from homelessness. Take all the social workers at DESC, PHG, AHA and the myriad other agencies around town and put them out of work by ending homelessness. Those folks add more to the economy through the bar at McCoy's Firehouse than any other population. And then create a 10 year plan to end homelessness and staff it with a bunch of highly paid administrators who pay their taxes, spend money to take their friends to lunch, and the system gets added to again. Capitalism creates homelessness and homelessness creates the need for people who have never been, will never be, and probably don't know anyone who is homeless to talk about how to end it. And they get paid rather well to do so. Capitalism at its finest. And, let's be honest, what would Tim and I do if for a job if there weren't homeless people?

Dr. Wes Browning said...

Oh yeah, I forgot about you poverty pimps, Stephanie! But you don't need the homeless to poverty pimp. Homelessness is only one symptom of poverty. You could pimp based on other symptoms, and people do. There was never any advantage to allowing homelessness to get out of hand. There were plenty of other ways to tap the dollars that fund the current service industry. Because that kind of profiteering doesn't depend on the exploiting of the homeless themselves, it's about exploiting the general public's imagination concerning poverty and suffering. You could replace the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness with a Ten Year Plan to End Drug Addiction for example, and the money would be just as good.

Sure, once the public is up to its eyeballs in chronic homelessness, people are going to cash in on THAT concern, because it's there. But there was nobody in a backroom anywhere in the early eighties saying, "You know we should do? We should let this poverty thing that gives us all this cheap labor go so far that people can't even afford housing. Then twenty years later, after the country has gotten sick of it, we'll start a Ten Year Plan to end it and get some Spawn of Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush to help fund it. It'll be our retirement package!"

Cyd Gillis said...

First of all, I know what Tim can and should do: run for office, if not in Seattle, then the Legislature. Secondly, given the 5 minutes it took to set up this blog, why doesn't Real Change have one of its own to promote the paper? "There's no time" or "it's part of a new web launch that's on hold" are silly excuses. You are already devoting time to blogging. Why not do it under the Real Change name?

Back to today's posts: Nice theme, Tim, but, Stephanie, the idea that homelessness provides a profitable market niche is akin to the myth that poor women pump out babies for welfare checks.

I do not question that many a paid career is devoted to poverty. But Jesus and Darwin are with the Marxists here -- homelessness and the army of social workers and 10-Year Plan directors that it has spawned are merely byproducts of the usury that capital requires to make a profit.

While a wee sector of lenders and builders has found a lean niche in low-income housing (I remind you that SEED and LIHI do not build their cheap apartment houses themselves but rely on a certain set of FOR-PROFIT builders), capital has always resisted wasting resources on those who help the poor and homeless. They, like the homeless, use resources that contribute nothing to profit OTHER than keeping the unfortunate out of the doorways of stores.

Forget the taxes that agency heads or social workers pay or the lunches they buy: These are people who would be gainfully employed elsewhere paying the same taxes and buying the same lunches. If he hadn't founded Real Change, Tim would be working for a labor union or a political party. Or maybe he'd be a short-order cook. Yes, that seems about right.

In any case, our tax revenue means nothing to capital. Our taxes only matter to local politicians trying to assuage capital and the citizens who care about -- or don't want to see -- the homeless. But we have little impact, if any, on the investment banker, for instance, who is considering backing a big-box mall that will decimate the owner-operator shops of Seattle's Little Saigon.

Those who are displaced because their store leases shoot through the roof will merely be cast-offs. Like the homeless, they will have to fend for themselves a step down from where they were before.