Class conflict and struggle occur, according to Karl Marx, because of the economic organization of most societies. Consequently, capitalism due to its internal contradictions, inevitably moves from crisis to crisis. The nature of economic relations in Europe’s industrial societies, Marx believed, was the central problem for the world’s rapidly growing population. He dismissed the Malthusian notion that the rising world population, rather than capitalism, was the cause of ills. He argued that when society is well ordered, increases in the population should lead to greater wealth, not hunger and misery. Marx posited that a decisive stage in the development of the class struggle would be the moment when workers “discover that the degree of intensity of the competition among themselves depends wholly on the pressure of the relative surplus population” and thus on their being able “to organize a regular co-operation between employed and unemployed”.1
One of the central features of capitalism is the oversupply of labor, or surplus population – a large mass of people that enter and leave the labor force according to the needs of capital. Treating labor as a disposable and/or easily replaceable part of the production process promotes capitalism’s central driving force – the never-ending drive to accumulate wealth. The contradiction between capital and labor is a thing of the past as a new line of demarcation has developed between the “productive” and the “unproductive” members of society. Now the exploited are redefined by their exclusion and by their increasingly precarious relationship to work. A consequence of neoliberalism is the reconfiguration of class relations in a society where the explosion of inequality and economic instability has profoundly dismantled the working class. This system replaces exploitation with the problem of surplus population that consists of the unemployed, the impoverished, immigrants, the excluded, the underclass, and the insecurely employed.
The post-War social welfare state – normalizing work for some and thus normalizing “non-work” for others, helping some to stable, life-long employment while simultaneously allowing others to settle into years of unemployment or social assistance – made the distinction between “active” workers and the unemployed possible. It’s from this perspective that the category of the unemployed as a matter of concern for public policy, in conjunction with the concentration of unemployment, helped to produce, both in theory and practice, a group truly isolated from that of the “salaried population.” As long as we were in a situation of full employment and unemployment was relatively low, the new protections made available to workers posed few problems. Workers continued to have lifestyles and trajectories that were fairly homogeneous, thus facilitating a sense of cohesion and collective organization.
However, as soon as unemployment began ticking upward and became ‘structural’, welfare protections benefiting both workers and the unemployed tended to differentiate between the two and thus fracture the working class into two segments: those with work and those without. Indeed, this very argument was at the heart of the private speech that Mitt Romney gave to wealthy donors during the 2012 presidential election. In his view, the election was going to be tight for any Republican in a country where, according to him, 47% of Americans “pay no income tax” and are “dependent upon government.”
Herbert Marcuse notes the working class is no longer the agent of social change. Now underprivileged groups require active minorities, students and the young middle class intelligentsia to advocate for radical reform. The classical worker has disappeared and the majority of the people now belong to a post-industrial neo-proletariat, which, with no job security or definite clear identity, fills the area of probationary contracted, casual, temporary and part-time employment. In the system today there is no longer a separation between the rich and the poor. At the centre are the workers who pay taxes for a system of ‘handouts and entitlements’ against the excluded who missed the benefits of 1960s and 1970s. These two fractions of the proletariat redefine the social question. The excluded pose the problem – the so-called surplus population has become the central political subject, rather than the working class per se. It is no longer the fact of being exploited that poses the problem so much as it is one’s relation to work.
Neoliberal capitalism has enlisted these two fractions of the proletariat into destructive competition against each other. The clash is no longer between labour and the privileged elite rather between a proletariat that pays taxes with an underclass that relies on a system of handouts and entitlements. Neoliberalism is redefining the social question as a conflict between two fractions of the proletariat. This new dynamic aims at limiting the social rights of the ‘surplus population’ by pitting active workers against them, while on the other side mobilizing the surplus population against the privileges of the active workers. In the end, both end up accepting to their detriment the centrality of the category of exclusion which is a neoliberal creation.
The post-industrial society is divided between those who have access to the labour market and those, in varying degrees, who do not. The world of labour shifts to exclusion, poverty, and unemployment and the intellectual world largely goes along with this dynamic. This displacement indirectly puts workers who have a job on the same side as the privileged with acquired advantages. This takes the focus from the inherit inequality in the system and focuses on the distribution, specifically its disproportionate effect on the excluded – such as the unemployed, minorities and immigrants. The issue is no longer unemployment as such, but its over representation among certain groups and hence the discrimination to which they have clearly been subjected.
During the primaries Bernie Sanders advocated breaking up the biggest banks, doubling the minimum wage, and putting the entire country on Medicare. His message resonated and he drew massive crowds nearly everywhere he traveled. Much of the enthusiasm for his candidacy came from college students and progressives who think the party establishment has been compromised. “We are moving rapidly away from our democratic heritage into an oligarchic form of society,” Sanders claims. “Today, the most serious problem we face is the grotesque and growing level of wealth and income inequality. This is a profound moral issue, this is an economic issue and this is a political issue.” Sanders’ message is the need to get big money out of politics and restore democracy. Super PACs enable the wealthiest people and large corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money allowing them to buy elections and elect candidates who represent their interests, not the people.
Donald Trump feasts on social divisions and has perfected harnessing the rage of the workers driven by the failure of neoliberal market fundamentalism. This was combined with attacks on Clinton’s character with promises to reduce threats to security, customs and values of Americans. He became an early leader of the Republican hopefuls out maneuvering his fellow contenders using fear as a motivating factor – banking on the fact that presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and prevent a critical assessment of policies. In particular, he captured the concern of the Republican base over the fear of illegal immigrants with respect to loss of jobs and traditions. Brietbart (news) which taps into a general fear which white workers have over the loss of status finds common ground with Trump.
Neoliberalism is a consequence of restructuring of class power in favour of the economic elite. It has no vision of the good society or the public good and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Today neoliberal ideology defines the social relationships of poor people and the attitude towards them that supports an economic system that creates inequality. Neoliberal capitalism is associated with increasing income gradient between the rich and the rest of society. This increasing economic inequality between the rich and the rest of society over the past four decades led to the hollowing out of the middle class, leaving many people angry. Sanders’ angry voters sought the necessary change to create greater equality in society. Trump’s angry supporters who put him over the top want better jobs and less handouts and entitlements to those they believe are taking advantage of the system, including immigrants.
Republican success in the recent election relied on specific messages targeting the differences between the employed and the underclass in America. Republicans took advantage of the success of neoliberals in shifting identity from what people own (class) to the difference of what people are (identity). Thus, one’s position in the (class) relation capital/labor is no longer the object of a fundamental contradiction. The main effect of this approach, which necessarily ends up pitting different segments of the wage-earning working class against each other (on the basis of their different identities), makes it difficult to think abstractly about the forces that produce inequality within the working class. The problem is therefore not so much inequality as seen through the lens of manipulation by an economic elite, but rather the way in which the effects of inequality get distributed throughout society (with certain groups comparatively sheltered from them, and others not).1
What sustains neoliberalism is the ability to which it has been able – explicitly but more often without anyone realizing it – to penetrate and restructure the vision of its opponents. Today, more than ever, the success or failure of the struggles to come against neoliberalism depends on the capacity of political and class organizations (e.g. unions) to draw attention to the socio-economic stakes represented by the ‘surplus population,’ and to convince the ‘stable’ working class that their fates are intertwined. We shall only move forward once the ‘stable’ working class unites with the underemployed / discriminated class to counter the ruinous effects of this so-called natural law that supports a theory whose function serves the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in the redistribution of wealth upward. This is why co-operation is necessary.
1 Zamora, Daniel. (13 September 2013) When Exclusion Replaces Exploitation: The Condition of the Surplus-Population under Neoliberalism http://nonsite.org/feature/when-exclusion-replaces-exploitation