LAST SURVIVORS OR FIRST MUTANTS? – Notes on Surplus Population

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Notes on Surplus Population

“For all I was the thing
in history –
the barbaric; the semi-barbaric; the savage
that was me”

– John La Rose

Writing in April 1975 the Race Today Collective reiterated to a bemused leftist, who accused them of touting the same views on unemployment as the then home secretary Keith Joseph, that they, on the contrary, were of the view that “capital seeks to create a reserve army of mobile labour in the whole world, and that the young black wageless are part of such a reserve army.”[2] This theme of the ‘black wageless’ had also been taken up by publisher and activist John la Rose who, in an earlier issue of Race Today, offered that the “wageless black youth, by withholding their labor, are challenging the rule of capital in a fundamentally revolutionary way”[3]. They were, La Rose contends, withdrawing from the work ethic and crucially, refusing to compete with their fellows and making a break with “mundane social conceptions”. The Race Today Collective may well have offered that amongst such ‘mundane’ social ideas were those often voiced by the mainstream left whom it contended was treacherous to the ‘wageless black youth’ demoting them from working class to lumpen status and unsuccessfully tempting them into ‘Right To Work’ marches.

These examples of activist identification-of and concern-for the ‘black wageless’ bring up several issues that could supplement the many recent debates about the ‘surplus population’. Whilst on one level there hasn’t been much emphasis placed upon the ‘refusal of labour’ aspect of the heterogeneous social entity that is called the surplus population; on another there has been a crucial raising of the matter of whole swathes of the global population being ‘excluded’ not just from wage-labour but from the means of material survival. Indeed the word ‘immiseration’ leaps up from many pages with an almost insensate objectivity as the list of the indicators of a ‘superfluous humanity’ grows and grows: welfare cuts, food banks, mass migration of refugees, expropriation of millions of acres of peasant land, sub-prime mortgage evictions, a rising number of suicides, etc. So, whilst the Race Today Collective (from the vantage point of the mid-70s) maintained that the black wageless “do not comply with capital’s plans to use them as a reserve army in competition with their parents”, and whilst this may correspond in some way to Marx’s sense of the surplus population ‘setting free labourers’ there is much evidence within those pages of Race Today (and popularised in the movie Pressure) that the black wageless may have arrived at such a ‘refusal’ after being ‘set free’ by a structurally racist society that either refused to employ them or agreed to set aside only the “shitwork” for them.

So, it is revealing to see this debate unfurling as a reflection of a mass urban experience a full half a decade before large scale unemployment hit the industrial north in the late 70s. This experience of unemployment that many ‘white youth’ such as myself greeted as a fait accompli in the early 80s led, in a society that idolises wage-labour as the norm, to the ‘void’ of an identity crisis: Are we working class subjects any longer? Are we lumpen proletarians? Are we part of the industrial reserve army? However, what was never explained or widely broadcast (and little wonder why) was one of Marx’s Laws: “The mechanism of capitalistic production so manages matters that the absolute increase of capital is accompanied by no corresponding rise in the general demand for labour.”[4] This lack of demand for labour – or its being pickled until a demand for it should arise through new advances in capitalist accumulation – is what makes Marx refer to such a ‘surplus population’ as being a “population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it” and this, he is at pains to add, is “equally a tendency of capital to make human labour (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labour towards infinity”[5]. Is his use of the term ‘relatively’ more a matter of Marx’s contemporaneous optimism in an ever-expanding capitalist production that would always eventually find the means of putting the working class to work? Is surplus population, as Cominsitu recently suggested, ‘relative’ in terms of the proletarian experience of being in and out of work (at all times being labour power in reserve) thus making the surplus population, as it exists in the thrall to the rubric of value, a continuum that could, for Cominsitu, be better expressed as a “surplus proletariat”?[6]

Whatever the answer to these questions, it is to the credit of the Race Today Collective that they identified and raised these notions which have, after many years, resurfaced in contemporary debates [7]. One stopping point along the way has been Paul Gilroy’s suggesting, in an article following the Brixton Riots, that the black wageless youth as “surplus labour power appears as surplus population”, and from this he suggested that the surplus population, those “expelled from production”, should not be deemed an apolitical lumpen mass falling away from working class struggle, but as an indicator of the recomposition of the class that creates and profiles different forms of political struggle [8]. This echoes the Race Today Collective who in an editorial entitled ‘The Caribbean Revolution’, identified the presence of ‘the self-organized African wageless’ in the ‘February Revolution’ in Trinidad of 1970 [9]. However, one could say, following Gilroy (“culture as a terrain of class conflict”) and CLR James’s depiction of the catalyst of carnival, that this ‘political’ struggle often takes the shape of a ‘cultural’ struggle inclusive of community defence campaigns and direct confrontations with multiple forms of harassment by state-institutions (education, health, local government, police, judicial system etc.); forms that, with all their best intentions, the traditional left could neither admit into consciousness nor perceive as properly defined ‘class struggles’, but as ‘black sectionality’ and hence, the racial fragmentation of the working class – much engineered by capital – was further exacerbated.

It is this fragmentation, the obscuring of commonalities in amidst the ‘uncomposed’ heterogeneities which is mutually enforced by mis-recognition and projection, that needs to be overcome and, moreover, in today’s economic conditions may well be being overcome as we speak in that the crisis in social reproduction (i.e. material survival) is becoming more and more viscerally felt across many societal categories. These conditions have recently been articulated by Kali Akuno, who cites a report from the ILO World Employment & Social Outlook which states that “millions are being rendered to structurally regulated surplus or expendable status”. This expendable ‘status’ can cover a whole range of things: unemployment, precarious work, racist cop murders, forced economic migration, suicide, mass depression, corporate-driven displacement, genocide through a thousand ‘local wars’, refugee creation etc. Should this expendability be any longer considered as non-existent in our ‘Safe European Home’, then, Kali Akuno has a sobering thought that’s been known by many for a while now: “The capitalist system is demonstrating, day by day, that it no longer has the managerial capacity to absorb newly dislocated and displaced populations into the international working class and to sustain the benefits traditionally awarded to ‘native’ working classes”[10]. Not so much the ‘empire strikes back’ as the empire perfects the internal colonization of the ‘enemy within’.

In light of this and recalling Anselm Jappe’s suggestion that “the greatest threat that capitalist society poses to every one of us is that we are virtually superfluous and become increasingly so”, it is useful to revisit Marx and discover that he made certain differenting refinements to the notion of surplus population: a floating surplus population, a latent surplus population and a stagnant surplus population. One wonders today whether rather than a ‘relative surplus population’ complete with the hopes that we may at some point be rescued by ‘new lines’ of productive employment or state intervention in the form of ‘public works’, we are rather facing up to our inclusion into a ‘stagnant surplus population’. Of course, as Marx has suggested and many commentators reiterate, “the concept of the free labourer contains the pauper” in that capital, as we are seeing, cannot guarantee material survival as this is dependent upon the availability of wage-labour, but, furthermore, this tendency to pauperization (taken across the global division of labour) may lead us further away from overcoming fragmentation through the sole aegis of class identification when the ‘workers’ themselves, refugees from the norm of homo economicus, are entering the ‘void’ of superfluity; a void that brings not just economic hardship and ‘immiseration’ but its attendant psychic cost: depression, anxiety, and varieties of inferiority complex, etc.[11]

Some of the recent debates on ‘surplus population’ have a tendency to stay fixed within the theoretical framework and practical recommendations of Marx: there should be alliances between the included and the excluded through which the threat of competition between employed and unemployed workers is decreased and commonalities in precarity are increased [12]. Maybe this is to retreat to the past and to a form that has had little lasting success in light of the ‘relativity’ of unemployment. Maybe it promises even less success in the future the more and more people are ejected from wage-labour’s formerly homogenous and coordinated spaces, and the concomitant effects upon identification and group belonging (c.f. ‘hatred of work’) [13]. So, if more and more people fall into any of Marx’s gradients of surplus population (which the increasingly used term ‘working poor’ seems to be suggesting) then it seems as if capital’s inability to reproduce itself and the working class leads to a situation in which the surplus population comes less and less to exist under the remit of wage-labour (‘refusal of work’ becomes ‘the refusal to put to work’) and thus maybe begins to open up a terrain for an ‘ontological break’ [14] with those overly confining categories of capital that can assure us of ‘knowledge’ but at the cost of social catalysis. Does the possibility of such a break (much encouraged as more than just speculative by age after age of counter-cultural praxis) not once again, in the void of the norm, put the very notion of ‘species being’, a non bio-centric re-invention of the human as social, back into the foreground?

Of the recent commentators, it is Cominsitu, for whom the surplus population is “actually a dynamic within the proletariat qua concept”, that we can maybe see this opening towards the ontological break qua non-concept that Robert Kurz speaks of. Cominsitu have it that “the structure of the surplus population permeates the lives of every individual in differentiated ways and yet is not reducible to identity” [15]. Such an irreducibility is a means to overcome the mutual incomprehension of commonalities that make heterogeneities invisible to one another in that fixed identities (narcissistic auto-enclosures) block the fluidities of a mutual perceiving of each as other (as dynamical species-beings rather than as personifications of concepts like class) and led to fragmentation and separation of struggles. To return to Paul Gilroy’s essay, in which he offers that revolutionary struggle would entail the synchronization of “the movement of different class fractions with discontinuous but related histories” [16], is to uphold the ‘cultural’ as much as the ‘political’ in that such a ‘synchronisation’ entails communicative flows of mutual learning and psychical disclosure between each of these different ‘class fractions’ and therefore across the barriers of division (such as class, race and gender) that are constantly reinforced by capital.

So, in a moment prior to ‘synchronisation’, a moment of cultural revolutionary praxis, we have recourse to sharing experiences of the identitarian void under the aegis of ‘surplus population’: sections of the population have been made superfluous, made into ‘disposable human material’, which not only becomes a marker for the encroaching abolition of the dream of ‘full employment’ by a financialised capital, but a marker for the reduction of greater numbers of people to the ‘status’ of non-beings. A status more historically ascribed to the racialising and gendering dispositifs of capital whose authentic (destructive) desire is for this labour to revert back to non-paid labour, back to slavery, back to an ‘infinity’ of endlessly intensified work (domestic labour and child rearing) and forward in an endless preparation (personal development, interview training) for a life of readiness for rationed work (zero hours contracts, task rabbit, etc.) High on the agenda in this moment prior to ‘synchronization’ is not just the catalyst of the carnivalesque, but a much related effort to address, almost non verbally (I’m almost saying ‘through music’!), how we can communicate our life experiences as non-beings. The John La Rose header quote, a poetic means to express this ‘mass’ trans-historical experience through the personification ‘poet’, shows up, to some degree, the increasing feeling of the bankruptcy of academic languages as also a form of ‘coloniality’ and inadequate to instilling the passion for collective solutions to the emergency of social reproduction [17].

So, it’s maybe becoming increasingly possible, alongside Robert Kurz, to speak of a “social state of emergency” that is effecting many societies at once. The influx of multi-lingual refugees into Europe, many of whom seem, understandably, to have millenarian hopes in the benefits of an Enlightenment generated ‘progress’, meet a Europe whose suicide statistics are constantly on the up and, in the UK, levels of debt in order to subsidise the wage and ‘guarantee’ social reproduction, are on the increase too (£1.25 Billion in November 2015 reports the Guardian). There’s nothing new in such statistics as this (encapsulated back in the 80s in the very name of a left group – L’insécurité Sociale), but a potentially new conjunction is that, following the women’s liberation movement and the anti-colonial struggles and their aftermath, there is a growing sense that a psychically-rooted Enlightenment project which led and was fed by unpaid work (toil-slavery and domestic-labour) is itself in need of being broken out from. Such is the inspiration for Kurz’s ‘ontological break’ which in other parlance could equally as well pass as mass ‘decoloniality’.

That said, it’s not surprising to come across a Kurz essay in which he critiques the notion of human rights. He offers: “The so-called bourgeois ‘Enlightenment’ only understood as ‘human’ the existence of subjects of abstract ‘labor’ developed in the functional spaces of the entrepreneurial economy and market-based commerce (in short, the sphere of capital valorization). It assumed that ‘Man’ already appears from the maternal womb under this social form, because he can only be conceived, physically as well as spiritually, under the form of such an ‘economic’ being.” That this predominant and closed definition of ‘human’ as fit or unfit for work does not apply to the ‘superfluous’, the heterogeneous flosom and jetsom, is not a far cry from Sylvia Wynter’s concerns to see ‘being human as a praxis’, a matter not of reduction to ‘nature’, but of outwitting and struggling against the ‘classifying logics’ of the exclusive rights of homo economicus which are taken as ‘natural’ and, it could be added, struggling against the abstraction of labour that is in danger of no longer being able to wield the concrete know-hows that may appease the struggle for material survival.

Interestingly Wynter’s work of the 90s intertwines with her re-assessment of Frantz Fanon. In light with our times being called a ‘disposable era’ and with there being a much evidenced ongoing ‘crisis of social reproduction’ (what else, in the UK context, can food banks and the term ‘working poor’ signify?), Fanon’s title, ‘the wretched of the earth’, takes on a renewed resonance. In an essay from 1992, Wynter uses as her title a phrase overhead during the LAPD beating of Rodney King: ‘No Humans Involved’. That such incidents have escalated in recent years, coupled with the cry of “we are people not animals” that can be heard coming from Dhekelia air base in Cyrpus to the beaches of Lesbos, then this surely suggests that capital as ‘second nature’ is carrying out its own natural de-selection process, ejecting more and more people from its own sealed-in definition of ‘human’ and being increasingly unable to fill either the ranks of the reserve army of labour or those of the reserve army of consumption. Is this dinghy-filled horizon also a marker of the infinity to which human labor is being driven in its quest? A receding horizon inflated by gangsters? A horizon in which the human rights of homo economicus can become subject to a much overdue recension?

Such a revision of the ‘human’ was never far away from Fanon’s horizon. As a practicing (anti) psychiatrist, open to peoples’ traumas and suffering, it’s little wonder that he extolled the idea of a ‘new humanism’, a transformation of human relations that, for those excluded from the Enlightenment-induced norm of Man, becomes a means of mutual recognition and cultural struggle that seems to have to set out from the zero-point of being historically defined as sub-human and, as a psychic cost, reacting in a ‘self-aversive’ way befitting of inferiority complexes. To exist as a non-human (as ‘bare life’ to cite Agamben), may well be a tautology that is indicative of schizophrenia (or its intra-psychic correlate, ‘constant threat’), but it seems to encourage a vantage point that seeks to, as Wynter says in glossing Fanon’s ‘new humanism’, get beyond ‘the limits of our present culture’s self-conception’ [18]. This self-conception, as held-in by behaviour-inducing categories, seems only very rarely to question its assumption and unconscious motivations and there is more than just something to be gleaned from those struggles around social reproduction that marked black and women-led struggles that were opaque to the classical workers movement. Jenny Bourne: “Whereas the politics of orthodox class struggle does not necessarily demand those involved ‘question their very individuality’ feminist and black struggle cannot be undertaken without questioning both the values, ideas, images imposed upon women and black people.”[19] Again, with the foregrounding of the ‘ontological break’ the praxis of culture comes to the fore as it is such practices that help overcome the underlying self-aversion of those subjected to ‘stereotype threat’ that comes along to affect all those who struggle with the classificatory and discursive power of enlightenment epistemes; a power that lends constant transfusion to processes of capitalist valorization.

In Agamben’s terms what we are perhaps confronting, if we align the terms ‘surplus population’ and ‘ontological break’, is the potential rise of ‘whatever singularities’ rather than overly defined and self-reinforcing ontological categories that carve up the social, create divisive barriers and make us all imperceptible to each other (“inviting mirrors/ to flesh them again”[20]). We have asked how is it that ‘non-beings’ can communicate and there is within the openness of a ‘whatever singularity’ the means to re-discover this communicability in terms of our own hetereogeneities, of how we, as species-beings, are ‘sociogenic’ (Fanon) and not just ‘liberated animals’ (Kurz). In this way rather than one or another identity having to be ‘chosen’ as primary, there is, as part of the ‘ontological break’, the simultaneity of them all, their fusion into a form of the ‘new humanism’ that Fanon speaks of. Such a rising sense of our self as multiple, as always pertaining to a ‘refugee subjectivity’, is also a form that the ‘ontological break’ can take as it is one of the epistemes of enlightenment thought to have ‘our’ ‘self’ bounded and auto-reflexive, lacking even the consciousness of its own form as ‘species being’, let alone consciousness of other ‘forms of life’ and their affective miscegenations [21]. From another perspective, that of Gay Liberation, we can cite Guy Hocquenghem also summoning forth the ‘ontological break’: “against the despotic subject of history we should invoke our multiple selves, taking them to be irreducible”[22]. The despotic subject could well be homo economicus or its psychical correlate the enforced individualisaton of the self. The irreducibility Hocquenghem refers to doesn’t have to be the monohuman ‘void’ cast by the value-form but a surplus population pooling its own surplus of species-activity. Life Praxis. Solidarity clinics. Popululation

Howard Slater
November 2015

* Self-conception/Rationality/ ego-ideal/ unaffected & anti-affect
* Social reproduction and culture – peasant/rurality (casualty of Enlightenment and critical Marxism)
* Social Reproduction – need for collective responses but ‘group problems’ (c.f. unconscious structuration of groups)
* Immiseration and affect – Empathy / Means (language) of emotional bonding / Affective Class
* Creation despite immiseration: See Fortunati article / ‘Migrant cosmopolitanism’ etc /
* Ontological break (Kurz) becomes Sociogeny (Fanon/Wynter)
* PUNS: Usurp population / non plussed population / popululation

1. Title drawn from Guy Hocquenghem’s ‘Volutions’, 1974. See
2. Race Today, April 1975, p.90.
3. Race Today, March 1975, p.65.
4. Karl Marx, Capital Vol.1 Chapter 25, Section III. See
5. Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin 1973, p.399. We’ll play with this term ‘infinity’ a little later in these notes.
6. Cominsitu: ‘Trapped at A Party Where No One Likes You’. See
7. My own interest in ‘surplus population’, tracking its ramifications for renewed perspectives on the self-abolition of the working class and affective-life, was sparked by the ‘Misery and Debt’ article in Endnotes No.2, 2010.
8. Paul Gilroy, ‘You Can’t Fool The Youths… Race And Class Formation in the 1980s’, Race & Class Vol. 23 No.2/3, 1981/2.
9. Race Today, April 1975. In CLR James’s account the ‘February Revolution’ was catalyzed by the 1970 Carnival becoming a “… carnival of protest. A band from Cedros… presented a dramatization of poverty in that area… the university students organised a band which showed the domination of the society by ‘King Sugar’”. See ‘The Caribbean Confrontation Begins’ in Race Today, September 1970, p.313.
10. Kali Akuno, ‘Until We Win: Black People and Liberation in the Disposable Era’. See
11. This latter ‘traumatic’ experience often passes unacknowledged but it is a crucial stumbling block to any recomposition of class forces in that it seems to require that ‘immiseration’ becomes more than just a by-the-by-word and that the expression of these traumatic experiences are made integral to any recomposition.
12. See Daniel Zamora, ‘When Exclusion Replaces Exploitation’. See
13. On such initiatives to overcome this division in the working class see two recently made available publications: ‘The Battle for Broughton Street Unemployed Workers Centre’ and Present Tense’s ‘Unwaged Fightback’.
14. Robert Kurz, ‘The Ontological Break – Before the Beginning of a New World History. See
15. Cominsitu, ibid.
16. Paul Gilroy, ibid.
17. If we consider that language can lag behind the ongoing movement of social confluences and that the means of expression is itself in dialectical relation with the confines of language and the unavowable then another potential indicator of the ‘ontological break’ can be read in the disarmingly candid ‘last words’ of Endnotes No.3: “We are still speaking of a new cycle of struggles in the worn-out language of the old. We can refine language as best we can, but we have to recognize that it is nearly, if not completely, exhausted.”
18. Sylvia Wynter, ‘1492: A New World View’. See
19. Jenny Bourne, Towards An Anti-Racist Feminism, Race & Class, 1984.
20. Anthony McNeil, Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child, Peepal Press 1998.
21. … In the long term refugee subjectivity has an inescapable ontological dimension, for it demands the breaking down of the opposition between bare or bestial life and qualified or subjective life in which Agamben has shown all western thought and politics to be grounded…” Matthew Hyland: ‘Refugee Subjectivity’ in Datacide No.8, 2002.
22. Hocquenghem, ibid.


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