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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