Towards an Atlantic police state? (9) Population control in the crisis

The issue facing the established Western-dominated, capitalist world order is the growth of a population outside its control. Under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism dominated by speculative finance, which largely proscribes public sector employment, there is a huge surplus population. The implosion of the Soviet bloc, coming on top of the opening of China, completed the doubling of the global labour supply from 1.5 to more than 3 billion people in two decades. 

As the socially protective state withered away around the globe, undermined by debt and ideological corruption, populations came to face transnational capital directly, no longer in a relation mediated by states. This is the situation making a police state necessary, both in the Atlantic West and on a global scale through the ‘War on Terror’. 

In the West and Japan, the problem of tying the growing surplus population to the discipline of the labour market now that the welfare state was being downscaled, was at least partly solved by ‘workfare’ policies. Instead of keeping workers fed and fit during intervals of joblessness or illness, in the 1990s Clinton and other exponents of the ‘radical centre’ imposed harsh rules to keep workers in work at all cost. As the number of ‘working poor’ in the developed part of global capitalism increased as a result, the wage shortfall was covered by debt. Precariousness has become the new normal. Such an insecure mass of people must be kept under control by new means.

In the newly exposed non-Western world, including the former Soviet sphere, the increase in available wage-dependent people was handled differently. One segment is employed in the newly spreading ‘global commodity chains’ now that the threat of nationalisation was removed. At the peripheral extremes of these chains, workers live under conditions of extreme exploitation and in poverty. Their lives are governed by a combination of violence, squalor and ecological degradation. But even these people at the lower end of transnational product chains are potentially part of a working class that can be mobilised for wage struggles. Attempts to obtain collective workers’ rights such as regional minimum wages are a sign that this is a possibility.

However, the workers eligible for trade union mobilisation constitute only a small and diminishing fraction of the entire wage-dependent population. Export-led manufacturing is concentrated in China, Korea and Taiwan; in the remainder of the Third World massive plant closures and tendential de-industrialisation as a result of the neoliberal structural adjustment policies imposed by the West have greatly reduced regular employment, with catastrophic consequences. It has been estimated that by the time of the financial crisis of 2008, 82 percent of non-agricultural employment in South Asia was ‘informal’, 66 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, 65 percent in East and South East Asia, and 51 percent in Latin America. As the land is being emptied of its surplus population because only large, competitive farmers can survive in world-market-oriented agriculture, countries notably in Sub-Saharan Africa are reduced to raw material deposits and conflict in such countries makes life even more hazardous for the surplus population. As the illusions of local ‘entrepreneurship’ with NGO or micro-credit backing fade, the reality of a one billion strong surplus humanity can no longer be evaded. Cities grow at a record pace, and employment opportunities dwindle. No wonder people are seeking betterment elsewhere. This is the real crisis of world capitalism.

In Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ argument (originally of 1993, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union), the human mass for which there is no need, is concentrated in Muslim lands. The rise of Islam, all across Asia, North Africa and the Balkans, he argues, is powered by jobless population growth. Huntington signals a ‘Muslim propensity for violent conflict’, it is a ‘religion of the sword’; thus he indicates we must confront it by force, which was of course a welcome message for the US military-industrial complex. But it also appealed more broadly to the ruling class and their media, because identifying an enemy is essential to keep the ranks of society closed, especially of a society in crisis.

Wars aimed at control of key raw material sources, notably oil and gas, but waged in the name of fighting (Islamic) ‘terror’, thus become possible. They are enlarged by anti-Muslim populist parties catering to popular dissatisfaction caused by the crisis and blamed on immigrants.

Kees van der Pijl

For a complete text with full references see Surveillance Capitalism and Crisis

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