Remember By Doing

Scarcity, Sweden, and the PIC

Posted in Uncategorized by rememberbydoing on December 29, 2009

Capitalism has the effect of making us believe that the things in this world are incredibly scarce – food, drink, pleasure, etc.  If it wasn’t scarce, it wouldn’t be profitable. Consumers/citizens have to fight each other to get what we need, and are taught that they need useless things.  Therefore those that don’t have don’t deserve to have because they haven’t worked hard enough to wrestle it from someone else (read a more theoretical/historical explanation here).  Now we’ve operated on this premise so long that maybe there isn’t enough in the “commons” to go around, but who knows.

This has the effect of making consumers/citizens afraid and individualized, which means we find it harder to organize to fight against a system that makes few rich and the rest scramble.  Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s analysis in Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California shows that our system creates “crisis”, which means that it is always having to adapt to changing circumstances, and surplus.  Surplus, which Ruth Gilmore specifically designates as state capacity surplus, labor surplus, land surplus, and capital surplus, are natural byproducts of a capitalist system.  Since “implicit in capital’s imperative to accumulate is an equal necessity to disaccumulate”, there will always be some accumulation sitting around before it can get disaccumulated.  This simple explanation exposes the complex relationship between crisis and surplus that has created the prision industrial complex (PIC).  Specifically, in California’s PIC:

  • the unravelling of the “safety net” (welfare, education, housing, etc) stopped caring for the surplus workforce that always exists in a capitalist system, and therefore created more poor/unemployed bodies
  • land surplus was created as the small farming communities collapsed in the Central Valley and irrigated land decreased 
  • capital surplus was created as the military/manufacturing industrial complexes moved and voters were convinced that all debt was bad (even when it meant the provision of popular services, 
  • and state capacity surplus as the Keynesian state withered but the agencies remained.  

All this created a need for disaccumulation.  Capital was invested in prisons to lock up poor bodies, specifically brown bodies, marketed as a solution to America’s many problems.  America’s historical system of structural racism explains the obscene numbers of people of color in prisons and which R Gilmore defines as such: “Racism is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”.  This has meant crazy numbers: California’s prisons increased by nearly 500% between 1982 and 2000, even though the crime rate peaked in 1980 and since has gone down, and this madness:  “Since 1984, California has completed 23 new major prisons, at a cost of $280-350 million dollars a piece.”  Beyond numbers, it has meant that the surveillance, policing, and criminalization of mostly brown bodies ruptures community organizing for rights and services that would decrease a prison population and increase a healthy, educated, and employed population, and a continued intervention into immigrant lives.  A narrative of criminalization keeps a population dehumanized and therefore expendable.  It keeps communities and consumers/citizens from solving problems using non-violent or self-determined means.  For more about abolishing the PIC, check out Critical Resistance for some truly inspiring work.

This is all hitting home as I visit Sweden, where half of my family lives.  Even though Sweden is represented as a socialist den of ice gods, in reality Sweden is slowly stepping into some neoliberal capitalist shoes designed in America (though probably made in a sweatshop).  They’re privatizing left and right, Nazism is on the rise (soon to be elected into the government), immigrants are dehumanized (kept out of citizenship for years while they live in limbo, racism on the street, segregated, etc), and people consume like mad/borrow more and more, and believe quick fixes will save the environment/world.  This is a place where the state takes care of (some) people, watches out for its self interest in a relatively egalitarian and humane way (keeping eyes tight shut to effects its consumerism, EU trade policies, etc have on other parts of the world).  I see more and more that the State (“Insofar as [it] must both help capital be profitable, and keep the formal inequality of capitalism acceptable to the polity”  – Gilmore, Golden Gulag) is not equipped to deal with the huge problems of global capitalism: the inhumane conditions of the poor, resistance, terrorsm, drugs, global warming, consumerism, fear.  In the US, the state power is immense yet not involved much in the daily stresses and needs of our lives (ie giving us services we need) so community organizations grow and fight.  In Sweden, that response is dulled by the complacency of being taken care of by the state.  Sweden needs more community-based organizing to introduce people to each other, get them invested in global liberation, and help them divest from scarcity and invest in a way of living that goes beyond a plastic bag philosophy and toward the seed: grows, feeds, makes more seeds, dies, coexists, grows again.

Sidenote on scarcity capitalism:  It also means that something like Obama, which represented abundance – an unstoppable force for change, an easy equity, an impossible dream – so bewitching, and makes the fall all the more hurtful.


One Response

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  1. Vincent James said, on January 4, 2010 at 9:49 am

    So, I read that critique of the Obama speech that you link to at the end, and I think it’s unnecessarily blunt to lump political and civil rights with what Obama called “economic security and opportunity,” but what that blogger wants to also call rights–economic, social, cultural.

    Because the economic “right,” the having-the-ability to make a decent living, is very complicated. The movement of jobs around the world at a rate faster than a worker’s lifetime, makes variable the value of a skill. In America, from a loser’s standpoint, this is made real by all the people who were skilled in manufacturing who then lost their jobs when they went overseas. In Mexico, when we flooded the market with American corn, whose growing upon which we bring all of modern technology and resources to bear, Mexican farmers became worthless.

    So, how did we violate these Mexican farmers’ “economic security and opportunity?” By giving the purchasers of their production a cheaper product. And similarly for the manufacturers, we found people to do their work for less pay. So, if we want to call it a right, I guess we could call it a right to a consistent market. But that’s from a producer/worker standpoint, which we left long ago for the sake of the consumer’s. (Maybe this is kind of a big point, though, that we need to realize that even if we’re not actually the producers of anything, which is weirdly true, but also glaringly false if you expand your definition of “we” AT ALL, there are producers somewhere.)

    So, maybe I think it is blunt to call it a right is because civil and political rights are truly just given to the citizens. They have to be maintained by politicians and lawyers–and citizens that elect and influence these people–but once they are created, they are just handed over. These economic rights–not to mention the social and cultural, but I think it might be similar–are given from the rulers to the ruled in a different way. The economic right is the right to consistently have your needs met (security) and for there to be room to strive (opportunity). The security is the weird one, because conservatives usually attack that right–I guess I am calling it a right now–because they understand it as welfare and unemployment checks and social services. More accurately, I think we should conceive of it not as the right for those services, but rather, that everyone deserves the right to provide for oneself and his/her community, which would require a much more consistent market(I think this is all that matters, really), which would require reigning in the juggernaut of technological innovation–a dubiously possible task–and also the political manipulation of markets. Attaining a consistent market in as dynamic a world as the one in which we live is a crazy prospect. It might be definitionally impossible. If we didn’t sign NAFTA, what would have happened to Mexican farmers? Mexican intellectuals?

    The social services seem more like the responsibility when the right is violated, like in the examples, and not the issuance of the right itself. The thought that I have the right to free food and shelter in the same way I have the right to free speech and association, gives me the heebie jeebies, I suppose, like conservative thinkers and dummy republicans alike.

    God damn the PIC is crazy. I don’t know what to make of that besides “legalize it.” Low-hanging fruit. (In Critical Resistance’s mission statement they use the same language as the blogger, “We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure.” I just think trat’s poor marketing, poor coalition-building. Conservatives will never get on that train. Or maybe they will. My opinion is rooted in one minute of rooting around their website.)

    Thanks for writing Lisa. You smart.

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