In Endnotes 2, we presented an account of capital’s immanent tendency towards crisis that revolved around a theory of surplus population. What follows is an attempt to refine, clarify and develop the central categories of that theory.1 Our motivation to do so derives from certain misapprehensions we’ve encountered, which seem to betray a general tendency to directly map the category of “surplus population” onto a singular, coherent social subject or sociological group, with the potential implication that this group is to be viewed as a new kind of revolutionary agent. Far from representing the emergence of a coherent agent, the expansion of the surplus population marks the tendential disappearance of the previous revolutionary horizon.
It was once possible — indeed quite reasonable — to think of the proletariat as an emergent social subject, becoming ever larger and more unified with the global spread and development of the capitalist mode of production, and particularly with the incorporation of a growing portion of the class into industrial employment. Today, in an era of slowing economic growth — which is also an era of general deindustrialisation — the revolutionary orientations of the past no longer make sense. The working class — always internally differentiated — displays a diminishing capacity for unification under a single hegemonic figure, thus realising its always latent tendency to decompose into fragments, facing off one against the other.
At the heart of this fractiousness is the division of the class into two parts: (1) a shrinking one that retains higher wages and social protections, but must constantly fight rearguard actions against capitalist “reforms” and restructurings; and (2) a growing one that faces poor prospects of employment and is offered few social protections.2 The more secure sector — which is also more organised — often needs the support of the more precarious in order to win its struggles. However, calls for greater “inclusion” of such people may stoke valid fears that this will undermine more secure positions, opening up access to education and training, and thereby increasing labour supply and reducing bargaining power.3 At the same time, members of the more precarious part may be rightly suspicious of the motives of the more secure: after the sacrifices have been made, won’t it be merely the latter’s rearguard battles that have been won? After all, those with security rarely take to the streets when it is the less fortunate who are getting screwed. The expansion of the surplus population is important in explaining this division, but it is not the only meaningful one within the class.
There is a potentially infinite variety of such distinctions, so the question of explaining current divisions can in a sense be reversed: What was the unity that is now in advanced stages of decay? How did it come about? This is a question that we have attempted to answer elsewhere in this issue, in ‘A History of Separation’. For our purposes here though, it is enough to note simply that there was once a hegemonic identity and orientation among workers that could provide grounds for affirming certain struggles as central, while excluding others as secondary or unimportant. It is equally clear that this affirmation seems less and less plausible today. In place of the identity of the worker, we are now faced with so many competing alternatives, each with its own strategic priorities: those who want more jobs against those who want to stave off environmental catastrophe; those who want to preserve the family wage for unionised male workers against those who want gender equality; those of dominant national or racial identities against those of racialised minorities, and so on.
In this sense, the fractiousness of “identity politics” is symptomatic of an era. In a period of increasingly slow economic growth under the threat of ecological catastrophe, it seems diminishingly plausible to claim that fighting the battles of one part of the class will advance the class as a whole. This is why we reject any attempt to find in surplus populations an ersatz social subject that might replace the hegemonic role played by the white male factory worker in the workers’ movement. At present there seems to be no class fraction — whether “the most strategically placed” or “the most oppressed” — whose struggles express a general interest. At the same time, attempts to conjure up a new unity from this diversity by simply renaming it as “multitude” or “precariat”, for example, merely gloss over this fundamental problem of internal division.
If there is any revolutionary potential at present, it seems that it stands to be actualised not in the struggle of any particular class fraction, but rather, in those moments when diverse fractions are drawn together in struggle in spite of their mutual suspicions; despite the lack of a stable, consistent hegemonic pole. In such moments, the demands of various sections of the class come into conflict with one another — a conflict that may bring the prospect of destabilising or undermining mutually exclusive demands and identities. The modes by which social life is organised and segmented within capitalist societies can then come to appear as obstacles to further struggle, dividing workers against one another. The question of how to move forward is then at least raised, though with no easy answers. After all, a definitive answer would involve an overcoming of the unity-in-separation that organises social life.
The theory of surplus population derives from arguments presented by Marx in the first volume of Capital, chapter 25 in particular, on the “general law of capitalist accumulation”. Marx defines the surplus population as workers without regular access to work: a worker “belongs to” the surplus population “when he is only partially employed or wholly unemployed”.4 Marx refers to this surplus population as a “relative surplus population”, because these workers are not absolutely surplus, as in a Malthusian account (which is to say, it is not a matter of there not being enough food, water, shelter, etc). Instead, these workers are surplus relative to the needs of capital — that is, relative to capital’s demand for labour.
In the history of capitalist societies, large masses of people have been absorbed into the labour market and have come to depend entirely upon earning wages in order to survive. They cannot leave the labour market unless they can get other workers to support them. In other words, workers have to work regardless of what sort and how much work is available. They are at the mercy of capital’s demand for labour. When that demand falls and there isn’t enough work to go around, workers do not stop working altogether — unless they really have no options, in which case they become paupers. Instead, they enter one or another branch of an extensive and variegated surplus population.
Marx describes “all kinds of forms” of surplus population. Due to transformations of production, workers are constantly being churned out of old and into new industries, depending upon the shifting needs of capital. This gives rise, in Marx’s account, to both “latent” and “floating” surplus populations, the latter of which Marx often called the “reserve army of labour”. However, as a consequence of this ongoing development, capital also produces a super-exploited “stagnant” surplus population, when it fails to re-absorb displaced workers into new lines.
Marx thought that the problem of the surplus population — ultimately a problem of the growing oversupply of, and under-demand for, labour — would intensify over time and, as a result, people would increasingly find themselves disconnected from labour markets, and hence from regular access to the wage. Indeed, Marx describes this as the “absolute general law of capitalist accumulation”. What happens is that capital’s ongoing accumulation process leads to rising labour productivity, which in turn expands the “industrial reserve army”, causing the “consolidated surplus population” — “whose misery is in inverse ratio to the amount of torture it has to undergo in the form of labour” — to grow, and increasing “official pauperism”; that is, those who cannot make enough in wages to survive, and so must beg for their bread.5 The overall result is that the accumulation of wealth occurs alongside an accumulation of poverty.
In Marx’s account, the main reason capitalist development leads to the growth of the surplus population has to do with what we have called “technological ratcheting”.6 In essence, Marx argues that the demand for labour in each industry eventually falls as labour productivity rises. New industries do come on line, at a faster or slower pace, increasing the demand for labour. However, these new industries never start out from zero: they do not need to reinvent e.g. steam power, the assembly line, the electric motor. Instead, new lines absorb technological innovations that preceded them. As a result, the emergence of new industries is less and less effective in increasing the demand for labour. Hence capital has what Marx terms a “rising organic composition”. Marx argues that it is the older lines, which have not yet been technically renewed, which tend to absorb the most labour.
This theory could be fleshed out further by developing links with Marx’s notes on overaccumulation in volume 3, but that is another project. Here we simply note that, today, what renders many workers surplus to the requirements of capital is a dual tendency: on the one hand, towards overaccumulation — which reduces profit rates and hence slows the expansion of output — and on the other hand, towards the ongoing growth of labour productivity, which arises out of capitalist competition and results in a loss of jobs in those economic sectors where output does not increase at a rate equal to productivity. The combination of these factors ensures that, in an economy wracked by overaccumulation, the demand for labour will fail to keep up with its supply. That, in turn, will expand the surplus population.
In Endnotes 2 we argued that these developments would tendentially lead to the reproduction of the proletariat becoming contingent to that of capital. If the post-war settlement had formalised the reciprocal but asymmetrical relation in which the reproduction of the working class is necessary to that of capital, with the end of that settlement and the rise in surplus populations, those who are surplus are effectively reproduced as a sort of “side-effect” of capitalist production.7 What this means is that capitalist productivity, especially in agriculture, is increasingly capable of supporting sections of the global population far removed from the dynamic industries at the core of capitalist accumulation. But when this happens, the dual interlocking cycles of the mutual reproduction of capital and class seem to make less and less sense. As “Screamin’ Alice” has argued, this leads in some senses to “disintegration” of these circuits at the same time as “integration” deepens in other respects — in the financialisation of ever new areas of life, for example.8
In the 20th century, this idea of the tendency of capital to increasingly produce workers as surplus was largely dismissed as an “immiseration thesis”, on the grounds that history had proven it wrong: the working class had clearly failed to become immiserated; on the contrary, living standards had risen. Industrial employment had grown dramatically, suggesting that the industrial working class would eventually account for the vast majority of the workforce. While Marx appears to have been broadly correct in interpreting mid-19th century tendencies (which limited the growth of the demand for labour in industry), he did not foresee the emergence of new lines of production that would prove capable of absorbing the surpluses of capital and labour that were being produced elsewhere in the economy. These industries — such as the auto and white goods industries — lay at the very core of 20th century capitalist development and industrial employment. The semi-skilled factory worker was the key figure in the old labour movement. But in Endnotes 2 we posed the question: What if Marx had just been wrong on the timing?
It is now clear that those twentieth century industries have long been in relative decline as employers. Newer industries, although they have emerged, have not absorbed all of the labour being shed from elsewhere. As a result, deindustrialisation has been ongoing since the mid 1970s across the high-income countries. But even newly industrialised countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Egypt have seen the industrial shares of total employment in their economies stagnate or decline since the mid 1980s or mid 1990s. China seems to be an exception to the rule, but even there, construction constitutes a large component of the new “industrial” labour force, and the Chinese manufacturing share of employment actually remained stagnant — at between 14 and 16 percent of the labour force — during the period of rapid growth from 1980 to 2006. New industrial firms were opening up and absorbing labour, such as in the Pearl River Delta region, but this only tended to balance — not reverse — the overall effects of the closures of state-owned enterprises, and the laying off of workers in China’s northeast.9 China’s manufacturing employment share only rose beyond previously achieved levels in 2006, reaching 19 percent in 2011 (the last year for which data is available). While the absolute number of people employed in industry in China is certainly staggering, the manufacturing share of employment in the new “workshop of the world” is nowhere near as high today as it was in the West during the heyday of industrialisation. In fact, the Chinese share is closer to the level that prevails in Mexico and Brazil today than to the level of Germany or the UK at mid-20th century (which hovered between 31 and 35 percent).
According to an old developmental narrative, agricultural employment would decline as agriculture became more productive, precipitating lots of potential new workers into towns, who would then be taken up by expanding industrial production. These developments would eventually bring every country into modernity. For orthodox Marxists, this would tendentially form a proletariat unified under the hegemony of its most “advanced” fractions in industry. But as the global peak of industrialisation recedes into history, it looks like something else is now happening. While agricultural employment has not halted its decline, those workers shed are less likely to join the ranks of the industrial working class than to enter a vast and heterogeneous service sector. At the world level, there are now twice as many workers in services as compared to industry: services account for 44 percent of global employment, while industry accounts for just 22 percent. The share employed in factories is even smaller than that 22 percent suggests, not only because it includes the labour-intensive construction sector, but also because a sizable portion of industrial employment in the low-income countries is accounted for by the petty production of informal, self-employed proletarian households.
Many commentators will argue that the ongoing stagnation or decline in manufacturing employment, which we described above, is nothing to worry about. It is supposedly a matter of a quasi-natural evolution in consumer demand, driven by market forces. Just as agriculture comes to employ a decreasing share of the workforce, since there are limits to growth in the demand for food, so too with manufacturing: there are supposedly limits to the demand for goods (apparently, there is, however, a limitless demand for services). The result, according to this perspective, is that over time, a rising demand for services will dynamically pull workers into the service sector, just as in an earlier phase workers were pulled into the industrial sector.
In reality, the dynamic draw of manufacturing during industrialisation was unique to that sector. To manufacture something is to take a good — or to transform a service, such as dishwashing, into a good, such as a dishwasher — and to produce that good in a factory, according to ever-more efficient techniques. It is the resulting rise in the efficiency of production within the space of the factory that rapidly lowers costs of production in manufacturing lines. That leads, in turn, to a rapid fall in relative prices. Markets for manufactures expand, making possible a dramatic expansion of output. Concomitantly, huge masses of humanity are pulled into work in manufacturing lines. That is the key to the dynamic growth of manufacturing output and employment: the former is very rapid, and that is why, in spite of high rates of labour productivity growth, the latter expands, raising the manufacturing employment share.
The same does not take place in the service sector. Services are precisely the sorts of activities that cannot be — or have not yet been — substituted by goods. In services, labour productivity tends to increase slowly if at all, and concomitantly, prices follow the same trajectory. In fact, as long as real wages are rising, the relative price of services will itself tend to increase. Since relative prices do not fall dramatically, there is no impetus for markets for services to expand rapidly. Hence, there is no dynamic tendency to dramatically expand output and thus to draw lots of labour into the sector; instead, employment in the service sector expands slowly.
On this basis, it is possible to describe a major distinction between phases of industrialisation and deindustrialisation in the history of capitalist societies. During the former phase, the demand for labour in industry — not during busts, but at least during booms — was very high. That affected the entire labour market, diminishing slack, reducing the size of the surplus population and increasing workers’ bargaining power. Once industrialisation went into reverse, the industrial sector became, alongside agriculture, another source of growing slack in the labour market, increasing the surplus population and reducing workers’ bargaining power. All the while, the demand for labour in services has been characteristically low. It has expanded, but slowly, due to the fact that more labour is generally needed to increase service-sector output, which is itself growing slowly. The shift from industrialisation to deindustrialisation is necessarily the shift from an economy that grows rapidly, with big booms and busts, to one that grows slowly, tending towards stagnation. In such a context, booms and busts are given merely by financial bubbles being blown up and deflated around the world by surplus capital.10
There is a corollary to this theory, which explains why a large portion of the surplus population ends up in the service sector, particularly in the low-wage, super-exploited section and in the informal, self-exploiting section. As service work tends to be labour-intensive, a large proportion of the final costs are made up of wages. Because real wages do not usually fall across the economy, it is difficult for service sector firms to lower their costs on a regular basis (general tendencies towards falling costs in industry and agriculture are due to increases in the efficient use of more expensive labour). This results in a relatively low level of output growth in services. But precisely for that reason, when workers are expelled from other sectors, it is possible to get much cheaper workers into services — as those discarded as surplus will usually have to accept a lower wage level. This lowers costs and allows for some expansion in demand for, and output of, services. In the service sector, there is greater room to expand the market by lowering wages. By contrast, in most manufacturing activities, wages make up only a small portion of the final cost of the product, so there is less room for manoeuvre.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that each and every specific service stands no chance of becoming a basis for dynamic growth. Many jobs which were once performed as services have been at least partially turned into manufactured commodities in the course of capitalist history, either for the individual household or for collective spaces. As mentioned above, the service of washing clothes by hand was replaced by the washing machine, in people’s homes or in launderettes. The transformation of services into goods is part of industrialisation, which transforms activities, making them amenable to constant increases of productivity in what Marx called the “real subsumption of the labour process”, opening up markets and allowing for long-term growth.
While it is difficult to identify a precise and determinate “logic” as to why some activities become really subsumed and others do not, the fact that certain activities require delicate work or direct human contact, and therefore must remain labour-intensive, is clearly key. There appears always to be a remainder of such activities, an assortment of differentiated tasks, mostly in services.11 Insofar as services remain services, they tend predominantly to be a source only of “absolute”, and not “relative” surplus value. This is simply another way of saying that there are limits to raising productivity. Consequently, economies that are “post-industrial” and concentrated around service work tend to be low-growth.
In such conditions, it is imperative for capitalists to get as much out of their workers as possible, by increasing the duration or intensity of labour. To some extent, the prerequisite for the existence of many jobs becomes pressurised work conditions. If super-exploited sectors take up a growing share of the labour market, this also puts downward pressure on all wages, and increases insecurity, as workers lose bargaining power and bosses are emboldened to demand ever more flexibility. With this, the door is opened for a whole range of abuses to be unleashed upon the worker — sexual, emotional and psychological, as well as the stealing or retention of wages and chronic overworking. Certain positions, such as that of the low-wage service sector worker, thus appear as a kind of special category of surplus worker, akin to the informally self-employed in low-income countries (and in high income countries over the past decade or so). Low-wage service workers must become extreme self-exploiters, as well as being super-exploited, if they are to get work. Many of these jobs (deliveries, house-cleaning, supermarket baggers, and so on) can only exist because the wages of the people performing the service are a fraction of what those consuming the service are paid. Thus, the condition for finding a job in a growing service sector is often accepting a significantly lower than average wage.
As is now hopefully apparent, the tendency towards increasing superfluity is not a tendency towards a literal extrusion of a part of the working class from the economy. Surplus workers still need to buy at least some of what they need to survive, and therefore they must earn or acquire money in order to live. Those who are produced as surplus to the needs of capital may still receive wages in super-exploited sectors, or they may be informally self-employed and thus self-exploiting (since they lack access to capital).
Marx clarifies some of these points in his discussion of the “stagnant surplus population”. One cannot read his account without thinking of the global informal economy, much of which would have been included, in Marx’s time, under the rubric of home-work or “domestic industry”. The stagnant surplus population:
forms a part of the active labour market, but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it offers capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour. Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class, and it is precisely this which makes it a broad foundation for special branches of capitalist exploitation. It is characterised by a maximum of working time and a minimum of wages. We have already become familiar with its chief form under the rubric of “domestic industry” ... Its extent grows in proportion as, with the growth in the extent and energy of accumulation, the creation of a surplus population also advances. But it forms at the same time a self-reproducing and self-perpetuating element of the working class, taking a proportionally greater part in the general increase of that class than the other elements.12
It would thus be a mistake to identify surplus populations with “the unemployed”. This category is, to some extent, an artifact of 20th century high-income countries’ provision of unemployment insurance. In the 19th century, as in most low-income countries today, “being unemployed” in this sense was simply not an option. Unemployment insurance did not exist — and today covers few workers in low-income countries — so workers could not afford to be without work for long: they needed to find employment as soon as possible, regardless of the degree to which their labour was demanded by capital. If there was no demand, they needed to set up shop for themselves, without any employer — by picking through rags, for example.
In the high-income countries, the category of “unemployment” is currently being undermined once again, and appears as increasingly less defined. As a general tendency, the welfare state has been dramatically transformed, such that unemployment benefit, typically paid to a part of the workforce structurally excluded from employment, has tended to give way to means-tested benefits. These are meant to supplement and support incomes only at the very lowest end of the employment scale, rather than support those simply without work, and are contributing to major increases in low-wage, service sector employment. This transformation is of course occurring at different paces in different high-income countries. In many European countries, protections have remained in place much longer, preventing the bottom from entirely falling out of the labour market. For that reason, a major “jobs gap” opened up between the US and UK on the one hand, and continental Europe on the other, wherein the latter have experienced higher unemployment rates, as well as lower rates of labour force participation, particularly for women. This gap can be explained entirely in relation to the relative lack of service-sector employment in continental Europe, and in particular, low-wage employment. The service sector share of employment is lowest in Germany and Italy, at around 70 percent, as compared to the US, UK, and France, at around 80 percent.13
Additionally, in the global economy — in which mobile flows of surplus capital discipline states — high-income states must do everything they can to prevent outright unemployment, and thus unemployment provisions, from growing too dramatically. Welfare expenditures, which are ultimately funded from tax receipts, must be kept to a minimum to avoid worrying bondholders and taxpayers. Current UK government policy, for example, is to try to eradicate, as far as possible, possibilities for unemployment as any kind of stable category, transforming welfare into workfare. As a result, in the high-income countries, many workers fall in and out of relative superfluity during their lifetime, due both to the increasing flexibilisation of the labour market and its destabilisation of categories of employment at a structural level, as well as the falling demand for labour.14
Beginning from the identification of specific social subjects typically means reaching for pre-packaged figures who signify to the popular imaginary a simple economic marginality, such as the slum dweller. But “the surplus population” cannot be so easily identified. Though differential positions in relation to the labour process can certainly be empirically identified and taxonomised according to types and degrees of “surplusness”, it is necessary to first identify the broader logic at play, before mapping the complexly variegated ways in which this logic plays out; none of this permits a straightforward identification of surplusness with a singular social subject or group.15 As we have seen, what facilitates the increasing production of workers as surplus is capital’s dual tendency towards both overaccumulation and an increase in the productivity of labour, which in turn decrease the number of workers needed to perform many tasks. But from their initial condition as surplus, these workers may turn out to compose just a “floating” surplus population — being reabsorbed into production at some later point — or go on to subsist in one or another relatively stagnant part of the economy (the latter is, of course, much more common in low-income countries). In neither case are surplus workers necessarily either unemployed or unproductive of surplus-value. And at a general level “surplus population” refers to a large, massively varied part of the population, characterised by all sorts of internal divisions and stratifications, all sorts of relations to the labour process.
On the one hand, this relatively simple theory of the tendential production of surplus population can help greatly in explaining various key aspects of the present global situation. It gives us a basis for explaining deindustrialisation, the relative growth of services, the spread of forms of insecure and flexible labour, and the numerous abuses for which this opens the way. In turn, these tendencies intensify and exacerbate the difficulty of unifying the working class under the hegemony of the industrial worker, in the way traditional Marxism anticipated; it thus gives us a basis for explaining the crisis of the left and present strategic predicaments. It also seems to offer an explanation for declining growth rates over recent decades, as relative surplus value-producing labour has become a diminishing share of global labour. There are other things we could add to this list too, for instance: the difficulty of states balancing between welfare demands and those of markets; the formation of mega-slums; post-industrial forms of urbanism. Or, on the other side: “financialisation”, “neoliberalism”, and so on. Insofar as these combined tendencies sketch out the major dynamics and outlines of the present global situation, we take the theory of surplus populations to be an important reference point in framing the present.
On the other hand, when a theory has clear explanatory power, it can be tempting to slide into a sort of conceptual overreach, where the theory is presumed to explain things which it really can’t explain, or to say things which it doesn’t. It may be the case that Marxists have particularly bad habits on this level: for example, “capital” or “subsumption” are concepts that are often reached for too hastily, called upon to do more explanatory work than they are actually able to. For a theory to have real explanatory power, one has to be able to identify its limits clearly and honestly — to say what it cannot, as well as what it can, explain.
What seems to be a standard misinterpretation or over-extension of the theory of surplus population is characterised by a hypostatisation of “the surplus population” as a singular social subject, with the apparent implication that this may be viewed as the new revolutionary agent, or at least that it is the agent behind various forms of contemporary struggle. This involves a conceptual slippage between general tendency and particular sociological or empirical cases. While it would of course ultimately be false to separate the two, it is also important not to identify them too immediately or simplistically. Thus, the theory of surplus population does not involve some kind of neo-Bakuninite romanticisation of a surplus subject “more radical” or “more dangerous” than the organised working class; nor does it involve a reading of present struggles as those of some “surplus” subject.
Such thinking was in the air in discussions around the 2011 English riots, which we analysed at some length in Endnotes 3. Briefly revisiting problematics that were at play at that time will help us to flesh out and specify these points about surplus population.
It seemed back then that for some the riots should be read as a rebellion of “the surplus population”. However, such readings appeared in some ways a simple — and disconcerting — inversion of standard and reactionary interpretations of such events, stoked by mainstream media, which held the riots to be the work of a disorderly and dangerous “underclass”. The latter is little more than a pseudo-concept, an ideological generalisation from the ungeneralisable. For this reason, it cannot simply be inverted into something positive that one might valorise.
And, in any case, it was clear that the British urban poor who came out on the streets could not be straightforwardly identified with the concept of surplus population. First of all, as we have already seen, the concept of surplus-population is relatively non-specific in sociological terms. It can apply to a large variety of workers, some of whom are fully employed but super-exploited, others of whom are underemployed or informally self-employed. It is reasonable to surmise that a substantial portion of the British working class is relatively “surplus” in one sense or another.16 Nor can the identity of the British urban poor be easily captured under specific categories of surplusness, such as “the unemployed”. While unemployment of course tends to be higher in poor urban areas, the unemployment rate in Britain has been relatively low in recent years, compared to other European countries, and a majority of the urban poor — and of those who rioted — were either employed or in full time education. Nor could they be simply identified with “informality”, in terms of the “grey economy”, or with illegality, in terms of the “black economy”. Early reactionary claims that most of the rioters were involved in criminal gangs predictably proved unfounded.17 And as we have already seen, it doesn’t make sense to see the urban poor as “surplus” in the stronger sense of being excluded from the economy per se.
Another often ideological concept that gets thrown around when people discuss the urban poor is that of the ghetto. This has related connotations to the ideas of superfluity that we have already discussed: the ghetto is conceived as a sort of social dustbin where the sub-proletariat is thrown, where state agents often fear to go and where the market is absent. The concept of the ghetto signifies superfluity, exteriority to the (formal) economy, and also tends to link the latter up with the concept of race. Ghettos are, of course, a reality in some parts of the world. But the British urban poor do not live in ghettos in anything other than a metaphorical sense: poor British housing estates are small, often ethnically mixed, incorporated into the broader cities in which they are placed, and managed as well as patrolled by the state. They are not surplus or external in any simple sense to either the state or the market.
If we can say unproblematically that what we’ve been calling the “urban poor” were a key active agent in 2011, this only works because this is a weak, vague, merely descriptive category. As soon as we try to apply the more technically specific category of surplus population here, we run into problems. Of course, it was not completely irrational to want to do so: there was a sort of intuitive “fit” at least at the level of representational thinking. The palpable, disruptive presence of strata of people on the street who are habitually cast out, excluded in various ways, was one of the most striking aspects of 2011.
This confronted us with three questions. Firstly, how to theorise the social subjects who came out in revolt in 2010–11, and to identify the ways in which these people really do appear as “excluded” or marginal, without collapsing this into the general political-economic logic of the production of a surplus population? Secondly, how to relink this exclusion or marginality with the concept of surplus population once it has been distinguished from it? Thirdly, how might these matters be related to deeper problems of revolutionary subjectivity and organisation?
It is clear when looking at the history of urban riots in Britain that they are distinctly periodisable, and that the period of the real emergence of their modern form is — as are so many things — contemporary with the capitalist restructuring that has occurred since the 1970s. If the tendential production of a surplus population at a global level gives us some basis for explaining this period of restructuring, then this tendency could presumably be linked with the emergence of the modern urban riot in this period, without necessarily needing to establish an immediate identity between urban rioters and “surplus population” as a simple and coherent social subject.
Since the 1970s, we have of course seen growing and generalising insecurity, as stable industrial employment has given way to employment by the state and the service sector. But these developments were uneven, hitting some sections of the working class before others. Prior to Britain’s full-scale deindustrialisation, the British working class was of course stratified, with a more insecure, informal, racialised stratum at the bottom, prone to being ejected from employment in times of economic stress, such as occurred throughout the 1970s: a classic industrial reserve army. These workers, at the racialised margins of the organised working class, were some of the first to feel the crisis of the 1970s. They were hit disproportionately by unemployment and they were not to be re-employed in newly emergent lines of production, since these lines did not in fact employ many people.
If surplus population is useful anywhere in this history in identifying an immediate sociological reality, it is here, where it can be used to distinguish a particular stratum in relation to the rest of the working class. However, in interpreting the deindustrialisation that really kicked in from this point on, it is necessary to move beyond the strictly political-economic level on which this theory is forged. This is because the timing and character of Britain’s deindustrialisation are inextricable from the particular dynamics of class struggle in Britain, and from the political mediations of this struggle. Though Britain’s industrial base had long been in decline, its trashing by the Thatcher government was pushed through actively, at least in part for strategic reasons. If the insecure margins of the workforce grew in England from the 1970s onwards, this is not completely reducible to the general global tendency towards the production of a surplus population. We need reference to the specific political mediations, even if this general tendency can help inform our understanding of what is being mediated by such mediations.
It is amongst these pressurised sections of the working class — the more insecure, informal, racialised stratum, which struggled to be reabsorbed by the labour market — that the riot became particularly prominent as a mode of struggle, from the mid to late 1970s, and it seems reasonable to hypothesise that this newfound prominence is directly related to the absence of possibilities for “normal”, regulatory, demands-making of the corporatist type. In developments dialectically entwined with the struggles of this section of the working class, the police in this period increasingly developed new tactics of repression specifically targeted at poor urban neighbourhoods. One might even say that the riot and its repression became a sort of proxy way in which class relations were regulated, in the absence of the “normal” mode of regulation exercised by wage bargaining, etc. This is not a perverse point: historically riots have pushed demands towards which the state has made concessions. This proved true of 2011 just as it did of 1981; more recently it has proved true in the US, after the 2014 Ferguson riots.18
In Endnotes 3 we termed the social logic of stigmatisation associated with such developments “abjection” — a concept borrowed from Imogen Tyler’s recent book Revolting Subjects.19 With its in some ways dubious provenance, we were not especially fond of this term, but it seemed nonetheless quite appropriate as a name for certain problematics with which we were grappling.20 What was useful was that this term named a particular kind of abstract structure in which something is cast off, marked as contingent or lowly, without actually being exteriorised. The relevance of such a structure here should be obvious: the initially racialised communities subject to the forms of oppression that develop through this period are socially marked as a problem — or even as a sort of rejection from the healthy core of the body politic — without being literally exteriorised in any sense from either economy or state. Police repression looms large in the immediate experience of abjection in this sense, but the term is also intended to capture broader social processes, such as the moral crusades of reactionary press, or the constant obsessing of politicians over the various failed subjects of the nation. These are not simply unconnected moments; concrete connections between all of them could be articulated such that we see a particular socio-political pattern of oppression.
It seems that abjection may be relatable, in a mediated way, to the production and management of a surplus population in that specific historical moment of the 1970s, as the restructuring began. But the mediations require careful articulation. After all — though there was at least a significant overlap — the stigmatised urban communities who were the “primary abjects” of this new style of policing were of course not composed exclusively of workers at the margins of industrial employment. Moreover, as Britain deindustrialised, and as broader global tendencies towards the production of surplus population were felt particularly in a generalised decomposition of the working class, the association of these typically racialised communities with a specifically reserve army function declined. Unemployment became highly generalised in the British economy, to then be slowly superseded by a highly flexibilised and insecure labour market. While this association of racialised margins of the working class with a reserve army function diminished, police repression of the poor mounted.
If the development of new styles of policing might be partially linked to the management of a surplus population at the outset then, this tie becomes increasingly tenuous as we get into the 1980s and 90s. One might speak of a developing “autonomisation” of the apparatus of repression and its related stigmatising and racialising logics. By this we mean that an apparatus which initially seems to apply in particular to clear, economically marginal, parts of the class, becomes dissociated from that strict function. While those who are subject to these processes of abjection come to symbolise the limits of affirmable class, these limits are in actuality unstable, shifting and ill-defined. They become more a socio-political, or perhaps socio-cultural, than a political-economic construct. If this is the case, it is doubtful whether we are likely to have any luck constructing the object of this apparatus in purely political-economic terms. Who is “abjected” then? We might provisionally reply, somewhat tautologically: those who are defined as such by the fact that they are the object of these processes of repression. There is no particular pre-existing trait or social categorisation which must, in itself, necessarily or inevitably mark one out as an object of these processes, which is not to say that certain social categories do not end up being reproduced in such positions. Abjection is closely related — though not identical — to racialisation.
If the mechanisms of abjection could once be related to a certain function in the state’s management of the insecure margins of the industrial working class, as the object of that management dissipates socially, the function itself would seem to be thrown into question. If something is being “managed” through abjection, it is no longer self-evident exactly what, by who, or to what end. We have blind social patterns of stigmatisation and oppression which are quite general, and can thus not be viewed as the work of some conspiracy. And we also have the continuing operation of formalised structures of power and oppression within these patterns, with police, politicians and media playing important active roles — though generally in part responding to the very real sentiments of the citizenry. In the process a new kind of “function” may be perceived, as the generalised insecurity of the post-industrial workforce is exacerbated by the waning of solidarities here, and people all too readily turn on each other. But this is “functional” only in a perverse sense: it is the product of no design or intent; a purely “irrational” outcome, albeit one which can in some ways prove useful to capital and state after the fact, insofar as it further disempowers their potential antagonists.21
If we are now speaking of the subjects of “abjection” rather than “surplus population” here, how about the abject as a social subject? These developments signify, however, not the creation of a new form of social (or potentially, revolutionary) subject, but rather the problem of any class subject at all. In itself, that which is abjected would seem to be by definition unaffirmable, ununifiable, for it is not a positive existence of its own, but merely the negative of something else. Those who are abjected are not something other than the proletariat. More often than not they are workers, students etc. Only, they are workers, students etc who are vilified, cast beyond the pale of social respectability. These developments represent problems for the constitution of a unified class subject; indeed, they are direct expressions of the decomposition of the class. The abject is projected as a sort of limit-concept of affirmable social class, in an operation where that class is itself negatively defined against what has been abjected. “We are not like them” replaces “the workers united will never be defeated”. And as such, abjection can have a somewhat fractal quality: not applying uniformly to one social group, but across and between social groups, depending to some extent on where one stands in the social landscape. There is always someone more abject than you.
This is not something that should be valorised or romanticised, or projected as the positive basis for some future social subject. If it is a curse to be reduced to the proletarian, it is doubly so to be abjected. Neither surplus population nor the abject provide any ultimate answer to the problem of revolutionary agency, but both describe aspects of the problem, and it is with the problem that we must start. What seems clear is that whatever shape a future unity of the class could take, it is not one that is likely to be hegemonised by an advanced industrial worker; though it seems equally clear that no “abject” or “surplus” subject offers itself up as an obvious alternative. Nonetheless, the problem will continue to be confronted, as people in struggle strain to compose and extend some unity in order to push forwards. And the combinatory processes of struggle can be endlessly generative.