April 3, 2006

Surplus People in the Global Economy

Surplus People in the Global Economy

Friend of Open Source Marcellus Andrews, who was on one of our first race and class shows back in September, sent us this dispatch today in response to the slate of recent coverage about America’s black male “crisis.”

I have to tell you that I am quite upset, angry and depressed by the “crisis of black men in America”, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. I read the articles in the Times and elsewhere, or hear about conferences on this subject — I am no longer a member of the academy and so do not have access to these gatherings of wise folks (mainly men) — and I think that this is all very nice if about two decades late.

Perhaps I am too much the economist for my own good, but when I wrote my own book on the political economy of black America six years back, I noted then (and note now) that the central problem faced by black men without skills or capital in this country is the same one that faces anybody, anywhere who lacks same: being a surplus person, especially a surplus male in the contemporary global economy is a bad thing. Unemployment and under-employment are the issue here, along with a hyper-masculine honor culture that is as much about compensating for the fact that one is nothing and has nothing in the heart of global capitalism as it is about so-called “cultural dysfunction”. In turn, this chronic unemployment/underemployment is driven by the mundane forces of economic and social exclusion that operate like clockwork in every market economy in the world, including France, England, Germany, Spain, Japan (few of us talk much about the surplus male problem in Tokyo but it is there) and elsewhere. I am irritated beyond measure when I read Orlando Patterson’s piece in the Times, not because it is wrong so much as just beside the point, since most black American men are doing OK if not well, thanks, and the ones who are in a hard place are there for the same reason that a white man in rural Massachusetts is cooking meth and knocking up his girlfriend — neither of these guys is useful to the global system.

Consider this: here in NYC lots of porn stores are run by Bengalis for the most part, staffed by guys — some legal immigrants, some not — who do not have a whole lot going for them. When I taught at CUNY, some of my Bengali students would talk about their brothers, cousins, uncles and sons staffing these stores, making it clear that if these enterprises did not exist, their relatives would be in Rikers Island because they did not have any useful skills, were angry, mentally ill or just plain f*ckups. The saving grace for these guys, like many a white man without a future, is that they have relatives who own businesses or have connections and can therefore give them “jobs” i.e. private sector family based welfare. If black America develops a robust enough business class or a connected enough political class to stash away our “surplus men” in our porn shops, or repair shops, or other enterprises, all the talk about the “crisis of black men” will disappear, even though these men will be as unproductive, sick, angry and violent as when economic hiding places did not exist.

True, anecdote is not evidence, but it can sometimes inspire new thoughts and a search for evidence, no?

I am leery of this talk about “the crisis of black men”, which strikes me as an excellent way of avoiding the fact that unskilled workers, especially men, are a surplus labor problem — read surplus male problem. Black men become a public problem because black communities do not have enough repositories in which to sequester our badly schooled or mentally ill brethren. Also, we tend to live in cities near media, whereas the many millions of surplus white men live in rural areas away from the media.

Here is a prediction for you: as the integration of the American and Mexican economies proceeds apace (a process misnamed an immigration problem, by the way) we will find that the rage of white men about Mexicans will be accompanied by a gradual increase in the numbers of economically superfluous white men driven into cities and towns in search of work and support because white communities will be stretched to the breaking point. Will we then talk about the “crisis of white men” — as we should have in the case of Charlestown in the 1980’s and 1990’s in addition to yack about racism — or will we finally get around to the issue at hand: that our contemporary economic arrangements do not at present generate enough by way of jobs at decent wages to absorb all the men who need something useful to do — thereby creating a class of bored, angry and far too energetic young males that we must somehow manage.

Sorry, for the outburst, but I find this current round of “crisis” talk irritating, to say the least.

Marcellus Andrews, in an email to Open Source, 4/3/06

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  • Rycke

    Interesting, Mr. Andrews, how you switch between “men” and “males.” Most people are much more consistent in their use of one or the other. But then, the places you use the word “males” are revealing, particularly at the end of your post.

    Using “male” and “males” to designate human beings is one of my pet language peeves. (And to a lesser extent, “females,” as well.) A “male” can be any animal; to use it for people is dehumanizing. People are men and women, boys and girls.

    Apart from that, I cannot agree with you more. We have a problem of bored, underemployed young people, tempted by the opportunities open to them in the black market, which has no minimum wage, minimum work age, job security regulations, benefits, or other such regulations that tend to keep young people unemployed.

    Young women are even more underemployed in my neighborhood, but find it easier than men to live with relatives or find men to support them. Thanks to indexing to inflation, Oregon now has the highest minimum wage in the nation–and the highest unemployment rate among young people it’s ever seen.

    So the young men are more apt to grab those black market opportunities–and get caught up in the prison slave labor system, and further cut off from legitimate work.

    The laws against immigration (which have no constitutional authority behind them) keep a majority of immigrants in the labor black market, cut off from anything but common labor work. There’s plenty of that–but little chance for advancement. Those illegal workers are more difficult for legal workers to compete with than legal immigrants, not being subject to regulations and taxes that drive up the cost of legal employees.

    In France, on the other hand, from what I can tell, the young immigrants and children of immigrants that have been rioting are not illegal workers. What they face are laws that make it difficult to fire people, along with minimum wages and maximum hours–all things that make employers careful about who they hire. In that situation, immigrants can’t compete with the native born, and minorities can’t compete with majorities.

    In either situation, with little chance for advancement, minorities have little reason to assimilate into the larger culture, and anger breeds alienation and even nihilism.

  • nother

    Thanks Mr. Andrews for the practical speak; these conversations sometimes fall into fatalistic generalizations and hyperbole (I’m as guilty as anyone)

    I guess it’s the economy stupid.

    I still contend that change needs to come from the top; we need more blacks in congress – creating fundamental changes in our economic programs and such.

  • While we do need a better representation in Congress and the federal administration and in the Federal Judicial system of the true face of America, Mr Andrews brings up an important point.

    What do we do with ‘surplus’ people?

    Is it just that they are not skilled? Or are mentally ill? If it is a skill set problem – do we just need better education and training programs?

    And is it true that there is no difference in the population of unskilled, bored white men versus unskilled bored black men other than the fact that the black men tend to be in the city? How is it that those white men don’t end up in prison or on death row?

    I, also, have an economic lens that I look through. And I do see an issue with surplus people. What I wonder is if we create them, unconsciously, on purpose. Business owners have forever sought out the cheapest labor. That is why we have had slaves throughout history. But having a slave for cheap labor is one thing. Abusing them psychologically and physically isn’t simply an economic issue. It goes beyond that, to the ability to dehumanize – I don’t like this word, because we don’t even treat animals the way we treat many humans.

    Understanding the power of economics can only be useful if you apply the truest nature of people. We must get at why groups of people, usually majorities or a group with power, are so able to watch other groups live with such suffering. And why they find it so easy to then blame the oppressed group for not behaving “well.”

    While it is “the economy, stupid”, it is also the propensity to designate “the other”. It will take a long time to change this wiring in the human system. But if we’re going to work on changing things such as the surplus people issue, we need to find a way to open peoples hearts and stop thinking in terms of the other.

  • Nikos

    Marcellus Andrews: that’s brilliant.

    I hope you feature on an upcoming ROS Monday again soon. You articulated everthing I’ve been ‘feeling’ intuitively but not quite intellectually enough to say for myself. Thank you.

  • Allison, you’ve hit the nail on the head again: “What I wonder is if we create them, unconsciously, on purpose. Business owners have forever sought out the cheapest labor.” The economics of labor so heavily favors the machine over the human that it has been absorbed into the human psyche. To work is to be.

    This subject is worthy of an Emersonian contemplation. “Surplus?” what does that mean? Can a man *be* extra, beyond, removed, above, elsewhere? Every man *is* intrinsic – a smile, an angry gruff at the structures of society. Trancendent hopefully, but extant? Where are the words to frame a human being, to demark them, place them in their habitat or limits?

    This is the stuff of nightmares, no thread of hope or dignity to guide one to that transcendence. When will we come to the realization that it cannot be just me or you, but must encompass us all in that which is basically human and moreover a common steadfast rejection of all that is not?

  • Right on. As James Carville said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

  • Thank you plaintext. It does all come down the this ideal that labor should be cheap. Which is related to our ideal that we should get everything for as cheap as possible. We can’t change anything here until we change the mindset that doesn’t want to pay anybody else a living wage for their services. We need to learn to consume less and pay more for what we do consume. We have too long let the planet and the “others” pay the true cost of our gluttonous consumerism.

  • babu

    Consumerism fueled by the heat pump of massive over-population. We are on the edge of resources, i.e. esxsentials, becoming catastrophically scarce. If we simply grow the econimy, we grow the problem.

    Black men, immigrants, they’re just the canaries in our mine shaft.