Tag Archives: social marginalisation

Redundancy, Precariety and Surplus Populations

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt of Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

The second round-table at Birkbeck’s Surplus symposium looked at issues within the UK. The panel consisted of human geographer, Danny Dorling (Sheffield), economist James Meadway (New Economics Foundation), philosopher Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths) and ethnographer Lisa McKenzie (Nottingham), chaired by arts activist and academic, Sophie Hope of Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Danny Dorling began by saying that the UN estimate of a world population of 10 billion by 2050 is a good news story. Since 1492 Europe has seen a massive population increase, which has gone hand in hand with the spread of capitalism as more people offer bigger markets. However, having a large surplus population will become unsustainable as the population begins to decline. Danny argues that when the market ceases to grow, the current mode of economics will be unable to continue, noting that capitalism has not proven to be very resilient to slowing down.

Alberto Toscano stated that an absolute increase in population leads to an increased relative surplus population. By surplus population he referred to the unemployed or unoccupied. This surplus population should not be treated as a natural phenomenon, he argues, but as a politicized issue, as it is political and state practices which lead people to be expelled from the workplace. Adding to the paradoxes outlined in the first round-table, Alberto highlighted how we are creating an increasingly vast (potential) working population while simultaneously expelling this same population from the workforce. He later described how sometimes the surplus population is deliberately made invisible for profit, for example in the case of undocumented migrants who often work for lower wages and worse conditions.

Lisa McKenzie shared her research from the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham City Centre. She has spent the last three years working with young men from the estate and explains how the majority of them are unemployed, underemployed or ‘grafting’ (working in the underground economy) as a result of the decline of industry in the area and lack of employment opportunities. She wryly noted that while Marx wrote that “In communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”, one of the men in her study drove an Asda delivery van in the mornings and dealt drugs in the afternoon.

Following Lisa’s description of the sense of redundancy, and suspicions of a conspiracy by government and bankers among the men on St Ann’s estate, Danny said that unemployment levels are not a good barometer by which to measure success of a society. Our unemployment levels are lower than Spain’s only because our benefits are less generous.  Low unemployment may simply be a measure of how willing that society is to force its citizen into unvalued, low-status work. Alberto took up this argument, saying that often the discourse of the Left is too close to the discourse of government, with job creation being seen as the holy grail.

James Meadway also continued on from Danny’s point, saying that although the UK’s unemployment may be lower than other EU countries’, underemployment has “gone through the roof” since the financial crash and will continue to get worse. Since the breakup of the post-war productive state, the UK has become a transfer state, he argued. And since 2008 the transfer has been working in the wrong direction, from the welfare state, towards the City of London.

Danny noted that in the 1960s the average (male) worker’s wage had never been higher and that the average banker’s wage was only six times that of the average wage, and only four times higher after tax. The current money surplus around the world “reeks of desperation”, he said and asked the panel and the audience what the best way to user in something better than what we’ve got might be, leading us into a lively discussion with audience members.

Listen to the podcast of the round-table.