Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
"Surplus" People (2019-12-09)
How creepily appropriate that the first results in searches on the word 'surplus' are all to do with military supplies, august 2019
Picture the scenario. The climate is changing, and the number and magnitude of severe storms and shifts in habitat for plants, animals, and far smaller more dangerous insects and microbes are affecting people all over the planet, but especially people who have the least access to the necessities of life. A great many people who live in "western" or "industrialized" countries have learned that their access to the necessities of life plus luxuries they understood they deserved, is being cut off. The luxuries part stings and is none too impressive, but these are tough folks on average. They can handle going without luxuries for awhile. Except, they have learned that the deal they understood they had made for their guaranteed necessities, involving working hard, not causing trouble, and toeing the line, that deal is dead as far as the best off dealers are concerned. The "elites" are doing just fine, and are sure that between their money, mercenaries, and gated communities they'll be fine. Understandably, the people who were on the other end of this deal, often called the middle and better off working classes, are asking some very hard questions. They are getting angry. Quite a few of them who want the old deal back are thinking violence might be their ticket to shoving out the old boss so they can be the new boss. Even more powerfully, lots of them are saying, who the hell needs a boss? This is a stupid way to live, we can do better. The people who don't want things to change, who can literally pick out how much money they want to burn that day, they have choices in how they could respond. So how have they responded? Primarily with violence.
This is not hard to check out. Just look up the latest police shootings and taserings in north america, whose victims are so often racialized, immigrants, or women – or all three – and how often those victims die. A better measure that may be less geographically specific is to check the proportion of the population in jail, and what types of crime they were charged with and imprisoned for. Check out how those numbers have soared in the largest industrialized countries, and how many of those crimes are in effect poverty. Check out the newspapers to see how much more play organizations and gangs with a media handle are getting who encourage hatred of racialized people and women. Have a look around at who is silenced, preferentially banned. If you think that "social media" is over-represented in the controversy, then feel free to look up the number of and types of crimes that preferentially go uninvestigated, or are underreported because the victim gets put on trial instead of the perpetrator. Notice whose death gets counted and under what circumstances. All of these ways of treating people and reporting about how they are treated helps elide physical violence imposed on people who are poor, racialized, female, or all three. The violence is rendered invisible by the insidious implication repeatedly made that they deserve their suffering. There is one card that gets saved for last in this nasty run of propaganda, and then it gets waved as hard as possible. That card is the one that reads, "surplus people."
Oh yes, "surplus people." No verbs, because the older versions, "eliminate the unfit," "exterminate the brutes," and "cleanse the race" are too obviously horrific and too associated with the eugenics as practised in nazi germany and much of north america on Indigenous peoples, African North Americans, and anyone perceived as less intelligent. We are a bit too relaxed about the "surplus people" monicker, perhaps because the term "surplus" turns up in military terms so often, and in that case surplus military equipment does indeed sound like a good thing. Surplus equipment is unneeded, and at first glance it seems like if the military equipment is surplus, that must mean there is less for the military to do. Which should be good all around. Unfortunately, that is not the way military surplussing works. But the key point about surplus is that whatever – and whomever – is supposed to be surplus, is unneeded.
Hence under conditions that look likely to upturn the system that helps them keep exploiting, so-called "elites" and those who identify with them begin invoking the spectre of surplus people. They begin pointing again and again at the "unindustrialized" nations where birth rates are just too high, because according to them those populations are mostly poor because they have too many children and obviously have no ability to plan responsibly for the future, or they'd stop having children. These arguments aren't new, it is easy to look them up in english. Start with the execrable Thomas Malthus, who was in no way an outlier in his day and whose arguments were not controversial. If you'd prefer recognized fiction, there is a famous little book by Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol that summarizes the arguments in the first few chapters via the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. To the people who raise these pseudo-arguments, it must seem like they win no matter what. If social policy and people generally start seriously implementing their ideas, pretty soon the poor everywhere are scapegoated for whatever is going wrong, and just about any treatment to force them into line can be justified. Except anything that might enable those poor people to actually resist being forced into line.
I find it grimly fascinating how many people refuse to overtly unpack the question of, if some people are supposedly surplus, what are they supposed to be surplus to? We have practical evidence at hand that shows "surplus" people do not explain the presence of unemployment or starvation. Almost every instance of famine that we can find solid information about in the "modern" world has been shown to be a product of policy and maldistribution, not literal lack of food. Further back than that it gets more complicated because the capacity for specific groups to monopolize enough force and control enough distribution to have similar impacts was not as common. "Surplus" always seems to come down to, too many people of a certain kind for our way of life to continue in the way to which we have become accustomed, for various definitions of "our."
All of which is not to say that the number of people on Earth should expand without limit. For one thing, that is obviously impossible just based on practical, day to day facts and simple physics. I don't agree with anyone who claims that "the poor," especially in "undeveloped" or "under-developed" countries are multiplying irresponsibly or without any thought for the future. They are doing the best that they can under terrible conditions, especially the women who actually give birth to the children and get saddled with primary responsibility for the children's health and well-being with little or no help, no matter what the circumstances under which those children were conceived and born. There is a whole lot of hypocrisy out there, among the men who insist women should not be allowed to prevent conception or abort, but who then cry and moan about how terrible it is that there are "surplus people" and children living in terrible conditions. It doesn't matter to those men at all, so long as there are more children, because it is about their perceived control over life itself, which they expect will never impact upon their own creature comforts and social position. So seriously, watch out for the "surplus people" card. It reveals more than it conceals, and we need to look straight at it.