Homelessness, Plutocrats, Over-population, and the Climate Crisis

The “homeless” person is part of what is perceived by the power elite as an unneeded collection of persons of no value to the system – a “surplus population.” I first ran across the concept of “surplus population” in a sociology journal article many years ago. The point was simple: a certain number of “positions” exist in society at any particular time and the number of people in society is often larger than the number of persons. The residual, or surplus population, consists of those who have no position.

It is now abundantly clear that all the production of goods and services – even including the superfluous, trivial, and just stupid products – can be accomplished using fewer and fewer workers than in the past. Overflowing suburban garages and commercial storage units demonstrate the oversupply of often meaningless products. Waste abounds. At the same time, the shrinking middle class tells the story of job shortages and a growing “surplus population.”

As the Industrial Age advanced, more and more goods could be produced per unit of labor; increased labor efficiency resulted from the application of technology to the production process. In the 1950s and 1960s, many people feared automation because it eliminated the need for many jobs. At the same time, we were told that new technologies would lead to shorter working hours, labor-saving home appliances, and more leisure time for everyone. From the 1960s on, women entered the workforce. But the expanding economy kept most workers employed.

Producing Waste and Wasting Lives

Because the economy was expanding so much, the need for workers expanded too, for awhile. Even the computer revolution absorbed more of the workforce as it expanded. Yet, many “middle-management” jobs were eliminated by the power of spreadsheets, word processors, and database management systems. The information economy expanded, but eliminated many jobs in the process. Through the 1980s and 1990s, as information control was enhanced, well-paid manufacturing jobs were lost as labor was “outsourced” to destitute low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America. Capital is mobile, labor is not. This trend was strengthened by a stream of international trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, which have increased corporate power over national economic policy. Many manufacturing jobs in the U.S. were lost. The remaining jobs were mostly retail and menial service jobs with marginal wages. Well, we all know how well that has worked out. The “American Dream” became a nightmare.

So, as the middle class contracted, Americans are left with less and less employment offering a living wage. Large numbers of people can no longer participate in the labor market while others live at or below subsistence level on minimum-wage incomes or less. Neither rents nor food are cheaper. Prices continue to rise as wages decline.

This is all well and good for the power elites who run the system, at least in the short run. More profits mean more power. For the growing numbers left out, the system seeks to either abandon them or find new ways to exploit them. They are to be 1) imprisoned for profit; 2) shot in the back by police; or 3) run out of town by any means necessary. City ordinances are commonly passed these days to make being homeless illegal! As usual, the victims are blamed.

But dark economic storm clouds are stirring on the horizon. As long as the money markets are run by the plutocrats and oligarchs for their own further enrichment, the real economy deteriorates. The economy is not run democratically for the benefit of everyone being able to make a living. The Congress represents the plutocrats, not the public. So, whoever is pushed out of the economy will be treated in these ways. The race to irreversible climate chaos continues as does the illusion that it is something about an abstract future.

The only alternative to this existential contradiction is a moral and ecological economy. And that requires locally organized movements for resistance and replacement of the mega-banks, international corporations and their political allies. These institutions have no national allegiance; they have no human allegiance. They must be overcome, not by force of arms (impossible) but by turning away and replacing corporate rule with community institutions. Otherwise, collapse.

The New Capitalism and Its Death

Unfortunately, Corporate Capitalism is the capitalism we have, and it is not about to relinquish its institutionalized greed. It is not the American Capitalism that built this industrial nation; it is a predatory capitalism that is extractive in nature and is destroying the nation. It does not merely extract the remaining resources of the planet. It also extracts monetary value from the economy to the point where instability is inevitable.

While still in control, the financial elites will never allow a hybrid economic model such as the Europeans have partially achieved, that would balance their greed with the public interest. That would not allow the obscene profits and power that it now enjoys. So, various forms of resistance are needed in concert with local ways to simply replace the “financial services” that the mega-banks fail to provide communities in their quest for phantom wealth generated from within the mega-banking system itself.

Local control can build community institutions and economies that can employ their populations instead of relegating them to ghettos and prisons. A genuine response to climate disruption would, of course, generate massive new employment. That will only be possible when we let go of our Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, and Bank of America accounts [of all kinds] and replace them with locally controlled banks with community ownership and ecologically sound policies. The new global movement of local resistance to predatory extractive capital can also direct community resources to employment in building resilience in a rapidly changing environment.

Homeless Plutocrats

Fact is, weird politics aside, overpopulation is a huge globally problematic factor in trying to curtail climate disruption as well as unemployment, underemployment, and homelessness. There will be nowhere to go for all those Bangladeshis when the seas rise a few feet and wipe out much of their farmland and homes. India is already building defenses against possible climate-forced migration. Similar scenarios are unfolding around the globe.

But the main source of the impending planetary climate crisis is the plutocracy driving global economic growth; that process also excludes more and more people from participation. Of course, it is the U.S. and other industrial nations that consume vast quantities of resources and produce vastly more CO2 per capita than the populations of “developing” nations. A key way to get population to level off and for masses not to starve is for the education and empowerment of women all over the planet to be accelerated. But none of it will much matter unless the plutocrats are driven from their comfy corporate homes and the economy is turned from extractive to ecological. There will be no place for plutocrats in a new “living earth” economy.

Meanwhile, corrupt corporate capital continues to exploit “surplus populations” in the U.S. and around the world. The “carrying capacity” of the planet has been outrun by endlessly growing numbers of people clamoring to participate in the phantom wealth of the industrial nations. Only consumption constraint of the wealthy nations can begin to bring the impact of their populations in line with the carrying capacity of the land they occupy. An unwinding of the ongoing re-distribution of ever more wealth to the very rich can allow a re-balancing between population and environment to begin. Some plutocrats may become homeless in the process.

Without major climate-chaos mitigation humanity will be depopulated alright — by resource wars, including water and food wars, mass starvation, and unprecedented social chaos. Homelessness could become the new normal. Hard, mostly political-economic, decisions lay ahead.

Capital Contradiction: The Fundamental Flaw that Dooms the Corporate-Growth Economy

The corporate cheerleaders of the last stages of the dying unlimited-growth economy still argue that “growth” is necessary for a healthy economy. The role of growth in our economic culture seemed secure, until the cracks in its foundation grew ominous. Now it’s a big question.

As the argument goes, capital growth spurs technological innovation, which will allow people to work less and enjoy life more. A happy prospect – as I remember it from the 1960s. Industrial technology certainly has reduced the amount of labor needed as a component of production. So much can be produced with so much less labor than before industrial and office operations were automated.

Is All “Growth” Good?
But what are the benefits of labor-saving industrial technology for people? Who works less and enjoys life more today? Not even the capitalists, but of course they are driven not by need but by desire. The rest of us mostly work more for less pay, just to make ends meet, if that. All the benefits of efficiency have gone to the power elites. Their concerted efforts since the 1950s have destroyed the unions. So, little leverage remains for paying workers a living wage.  People don’t work less – if they have a job – they just earn less for the work they do and usually work more.

One result of less and less labor needed per unit of production is that more and more gets produced. But since less and less labor is needed, fewer and fewer jobs are available for workers. The quantity of goods produced grows right past the need for them to be consumed.  As population grows, there are more people looking for work.  But there are not more jobs. Unemployment and poverty result from overproduction when workers have a smaller and smaller role in the economy. More and more workers, regardless of education, find little meaningful employment. Many become trapped as “wage slaves” in jobs with below-subsistence buying power. This is worsened by the ability of capital to seek the lowest wage labor internationally, while most workers must find jobs where they live.

Overproduction causes pressures for people to over-consume. Many of the goods produced are not really needed – they result from manufactured wants. Less understood is the fact that many people, being under-employed or unemployed, cannot buy them anyway. The consequent loss of demand for goods is a drag on production, further weakening the demand for labor. But behavioral manipulation through marketing can be very effective in spurring consumption, as long as buyers have money. So, with depressed wages, heavily marketed easier credit availability has encouraged many to consume “beyond their means,” especially for food and rent.

A Crisis Delayed
At the dawn of the “age of automation,” back in the 1960s, enthusiasts promoted the myth that people would need to work less and have more leisure time. But many feared that factory automation and office automation would take away jobs. The great economic expansion of the 1960s through the 1980s generated more jobs and the impact of automation was dampened and delayed. The dot-com boom of the 1990s further delayed the impact of computer-aided design, production, and middle-management functions on jobs.  Capital increasingly outsourced the labor it needed to China and other low-wage nations.

But as more of the well paid manufacturing and technical jobs were lost to automation and to international outsourcing, wages continued to be depressed. Left to its own devices, capital finds ways to reproduce itself. As buying power was lost due to lower wages, consumer credit and second mortgage requirements were loosened and these forms of debt were heavily promoted. Consumption was increasingly driven by debt rather than income.

As corporate lobbying took over Washington, business tax loopholes proliferated.  With loss of revenue, government debt soared too, right along with consumer debt. Without new economic growth and rising wages, debt service becomes an increasing burden. While the corporate economy grew, wages continued to flat-line or decline, leaving worker-consumers in an ever-growing squeeze.

The march of labor-reducing technology is always assumed to be inevitable and good. Yet, with “free markets” in labor and with capital able to move globally to find the cheapest labor, a severe imbalance occurs.

Half truths are sometimes just false. For the claims of a comfortable life with fewer hours of work to be realized, the entire organization of the economy would have to be revised. Money would have to circulate much more freely among all the people. The means of distributing income and wealth would have to be altered so that not all of the benefits of increased productivity go to the top 1%.

The Time is Now
What the growth cheerleaders ignore is that we have reached a tipping point where the power of capital over labor has caused extremely depressed wages and high unemployment-underemployment. So, consumer demand is depressed. That in turn discourages investment in production – corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, afraid to invest without consumer demand. Well, corporations need production of a lot of the objects of artificially created ‘wants’ that marketing has generated in order to boost sales and profits. But workers have lost the necessary buying power. It’s a dead end.

As a society, we can no longer afford to produce all that stuff the remaining middle class workers keep in a storage locker because there is no more room in the garage. We need appropriate production of the objects needed in a post-growth stable ecological economy. That will in fact require a complete overhaul of the organization of the economy.

The inevitability of economic progress, whether in the predictions of Karl Marx or the vision of Adam Smith, is and always has been an ideological flaw in the thinking of those who have a particular interest in economic history. Anything is possible and some possibilities are far more problematic than others. The old assumptions must go. Only an ecological economy can work now.  How we can make that happen remains to be seen.