April 2015        

The expendables

Nicola Lawlor

In the January edition of Monthly Review the editors printed and commented on part of a letter they received from a reader, Elly Leary. Referring to Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, she comments:
Piketty is not a Marxist—just a social democrat who wants capitalism with a human face . . . What also struck me about the Piketty book and analysis was how neatly its voluminous statistics backed up Samir Amin’s central thesis that this state of capitalism requires a worldwide class of “expendables”—people that the system doesn’t need and frankly, would rather they were not there (or die from the plague, die from lack of medical care, die from civil war, whatever) so that resources wouldn’t be wasted . . . [Yet] the expendables (surplus people) exist and are growing.
The editors commented:
A society that puts capital accumulation before all else inevitably reduces the vast majority of the population of the earth (and future generations) to mere “expendables.”
This is a horrifying thought: that we are expendable—most of us anyway—“expendable” being defined as something of relatively little significance and therefore liable to be abandoned or destroyed.
     With continuing advances in technology, and the concentration and monopolisation of production, fewer workers are required, meaning that more of us are expendable. As agriculture is capitalised globally, again more peasant and small-scale farmers are pushed into the category of the expendable.
     Monthly Review has previously added up the global reserve army of labour and estimated it as 2.4 billion—approximately 63 per cent of the global work force.* This 2.4 billion is made up of the economically inactive, the unemployed, the unpaid, and the underemployed.
     But is Leary right in suggesting that the system would prefer that we die so as not to waste the scant resources actually provided to the unemployed? I suggest not; and it’s an important point. Because in fact it is this massive reserve army of labour that gives capital its power. It suppresses wages, disciplines workers, drives the race to the bottom, sows division, threatens organised workers, provides cannon fodder for wars, and much more.
     Granted that capitalism may not need 2.4 billion, or a life expectancy of seventy-five years, but the system certainly needs to continually reproduce a global mass of unemployed to maintain its profits and its power. And I suggest that the crumbs thrown in the direction of the unemployed are a resource worth investing for the power and profits they underpin.
     Amin’s thesis, as Leary points out, is that capitalism requires a class of expendables. This is correct. Capitalism creates and require mass unemployment.

*John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna, “The global reserve army of labor and the new imperialism,” Monthly Review, November 2011.

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