By surplus club, frankfurt
When considering unemployment, social exclusion or precarity, it is inadequate to simply take refuge within the empirical question of which groups live under these conditions. Contemporary sociological identities are themselves forms of appearance, moments of the totality of the reproduction of the capital-labor relation and therewith in the devaluation of the labor-power commodity presently unfolding through the category of the surplus proletariat.
At the outset of 2015, anyone hoping for a recovery of labor markets is told to lower their expectations. Specious apologetics on the resilient turnaround of unemployment rates and job creation stumble against continuously revised growth forecasts reflecting the inertia of both high-GDP and emerging market economies. On a global level, the period since the crisis of 2007-08 has witnessed, at best, tepid economic activity despite unprecedented monetary stimulus and liquidity injection. Business investment remains predominantly stagnant, most recently with energy producers dramatically cutting back total capital investment. Even China is stuttering and decreasing its appetite for raw materials, while the professed German success story cannot be read without the unfolding process of precarious capital concentration of a rapidly declining Eurozone, rather than as an indicator for lasting growth. At the same time, the world economy continues its recourse in unrestrained leveraging, further exacerbating credit-to-GDP ratios, with, according to a recent report by the International Centre for Monetary and Banking Studies, total public and private debt reaching 272% of developed-world GDP in 2013. The recent alarm of deflation means a rise in the real value of existing state, corporate, and household debt. Corresponding to the fiscal approach of higher budget deficits is, since 2010, the outright purchasing of government, corporate and real estate bonds by central banks and paid for with newly printed money – i.e. ‘quantitative easing’. The European Central Bank has, most recently, followed the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan in the latter policy despite the fact that it has yet to demonstrate itself as an effective response to decelerating economies. Instead, the money created enters into the banking system, shoring up balance sheets on finance capital and fomenting bubbles within assets held.
These conditions outline the phenomenal contours of the present crisis of capital accumulation, which is at the same time a crisis of the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. Since the economic restructuring of the 1970s, deregulation has expanded the flexibility of labor markets and fundamentally reoriented the conditions of the class relation. While unemployment remained relatively abated during the postwar period – alongside the assurances of the welfare state – developments in capital accumulation since then have witnessed an unprecedented ascendance, in terms of duration and concentration, of both unemployment and underemployment. Since the early 1970s and through the dismantling of the Keynesian wage-productivity deal of the postwar period, the capitalist mode of production has been stumbling to combat the anguish of diminishing returns. Its recourse of economic restructuring consisted in the expansion of finance capital and increasing the rate of exploitation in an attempt to stabilize and defer its own inherent propensity to undermine the process of self-valorization. The 21st century thereby opened with a reign of labor-power devaluation that has only intensified its duress, which, alongside fiscal and sovereign debt crises expressed in austerity, continues to wield unrelenting immiseration.
Materially, the crisis of 2007-08 has only worsened the conditions of labor with, for example, the labor participation rate in the US now at a 36-year low, eclipsing any earnestly lauded low-wage job creation and its feeble average hourly earnings. For that segment of the proletariat not losing their jobs or dropping out of the labor force altogether – for which unemployment statistics have very little to say – the types of employment still available are largely temporary, part-time, seasonal, freelance, and in general, precariously informal without contractual guarantee of compensation. Thus, as the present moment finds an overcapacity of surplus capital unable to find lasting investment, the effective demand for labor-power follows suit and diminishes. Through the critique of political economy, this phenomena finds systematic expression in what Marx refers to as the “general law of capital accumulation”. Here, the proportional expansion of total capital, itself resulting from the productivity of labor and therewith in the production of surplus value, yields a mass of workers relatively redundant to the needs of the valorization process. This tendency arises simply from the nature of capital. As capital develops labor as an appendage of its own productive capacity, it decreases the portion of necessary labor required for a given amount of surplus labor. Therefore, the relation of necessary labor needed by capital continuously declines. This occurs through the organic composition of capital in which competition between competing capitals induces the generalization of labor-saving technologies such as automation, thereby increasing constant capital at the expense of variable capital, resulting in a relative decline in the demand for labor. The production of this relative surplus population is the devaluation of the total labor-power that takes on the form of a dislodgement of workers from the production process and in the difficulty of absorbing them through customary or legally regulated channels. If the labor-power of the proletariat cannot be realized, i.e. if it is not necessary for the realization of capital, then this labor capacity appears as external to the conditions of the reproduction of its existence. It turns into a crisis of the reproduction of the proletariat who is surrounded, on all sides, by needs without the means to adequately satisfy them.
Friends have pointed out that surplus population is a necessary product of capital accumulation and therefore a structural category deriving from the ratio of necessary and surplus labor. It is a tendency that is always already there and inherently constitutive of the capital-labor relation independent from its historical configurations. So why might one justify its emphasis within the present conjuncture? After all, the notion of a surplus population “is already contained in the concept of the free labourer, that he is a pauper: virtual pauper.” (Grundrisse) The task therefore remains to demonstrate why the relative surplus population is paradigmatic of the class relation in the present moment and what are the implications for contemporary class struggle.