Homelessness and the reserve army of labor

At the end of last year, the mayors of Eugene, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco gathered to discuss homelessness and climate change. On my way home from the office the other night, I heard a recording of the mayors discussing the meeting. The headline from Oregon Live’s coverage of the event reads: “West Coast Mayors: ‘We don’t understand enough’ about homeless people.” The headline suggests—and this is confirmed, at least in part, in the discussion between the mayors—that the inability to understand the personal lives of unhoused individuals represents a significant barrier to action. The headline highlights the impotence of the talks, which produced nothing more than a promise between the mayors to contribute money to collect data on “homelessness.”[1] But the headline is not entirely reflective of the stated aims of some of the mayors. While there was an emphasis on getting to know the individuals who don’t have a house to go home to, some of the mayors expressed a seemingly genuine interest in understanding the underlying causes of why some cannot make their homes in a house—or at least have some semblance of stability. For example, the mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, discussing people in tents and encampments, said that “…it’s only in understanding the problems that got them there…that we will be able to address those problems.”[2] Eugene mayor, Kitty Piercy, also expressed a similar sentiment.

As I was listening to the mayoral musings, I wondered how genuine the interest really is in understanding the causes of homelessness. One mayor—I think the mayor of LA—made a few remarks on the arrogance of assuming to know what exactly causes homelessness. Certainly, in today’s world, where everyone’s an expert—or at least they act like it—the LA mayor’s comment is refreshing. But I wondered: given the mayors agreement in their ignorance surrounding the causes of homelessness, would they really accept conclusions that could condemn the entire system?

By voluntarily assuming a position of at least general ignorance about homelessness, everything becomes open for debate. The economic system, the political structure, the various interplay between the two, etc.—everything is fair game to question. Being charitable in our treatment of the mayors’ investigative journey, let’s pretend they conclude that the problem of homelessness is not one that can be solved under existing economic conditions—not because the state or private entities can’t find the money, but because the unemployed and underemployed are necessary to maintain the economy. If this is indeed their conclusion (which I doubt it will be), they will find friendly company amongst a number of great economists.

The idea that capitalism cannot function without a considerably large “reserve” mass of people—ranging from the working poor and unemployed to the homeless and pauperized—was first systematically developed by Karl Marx. Working from his notion of the “general law of accumulation,” Marx theorized that the mechanism powering innovation under capitalism was structurally related to the cost of labor. Marx argued that technology was one of the most potent weapons in the hands of owners, since new techniques and machinery could be used to make huge numbers of workers redundant (or reduce the value of their labor) as soon as wages rose to unacceptable levels. As John Bellamy Foster, Robert McChesney, and Jamil Jonna at the Monthly Review summarize the theory:

[U]nder “normal” conditions the growth of accumulation [of capital] is able to proceed unhindered only if it also results in the displacement of large numbers of workers. The resulting “redundancy” of workers checks any tendency toward a too rapid rise in real wages which would bring accumulation to a halt….[T]he general law of accumulation highlighted that capitalism, via the constant generation of a reserve army of the unemployed, naturally tended to polarize between relative wealth at the top and relative poverty at the bottom—with the threat of falling into the latter constituting an enormous lever for the increase in the rate of exploitation of employed workers.[3]

This last sentence is key. When unemployment is high, workers have little to bargain with. If the employed workers don’t like their existing conditions, the capitalists can simply fire them and go find other individuals willing to sell their labor for less. When unemployment is low, the working class is somewhat secure and can, therefore, fight for better conditions. The mass of unemployed, underemployed, and other deeply impoverished classes (including the homeless) is “therefore the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labor does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate the workers.”[4] I’m oversimplifying a lot here, but the basic issue should be clear: The increasingly more powerful bosses manage the labor process and own the machines; they use this to their full advantage (consciously or not) because the poverty and inequality that inevitably result from the process are a necessary requirement for smooth economic growth.

We can safely assume that the mayors will never follow the logic of our economic system long enough to reach this sort of radical conclusion. But it should at least be on the table for discussion. To note, private charity has not and will never be enough to halt the ever-increasing numbers of homeless, or provide enough security to those who are a paycheck or two away from being homeless. Without challenging the fundamental inner logic of capital, charity is at best a temporary relief. At worst, charity conceals the brutal nature of capitalism and stunts the otherwise revolutionary potential of well-meaning activists and organizations.

The CLDC has been working with frontline groups over the last few years to ease the suffering of homeless individuals in Eugene and surrounding areas. In the upcoming year, we expect to issue new challenges to the City’s policies toward the homeless. While litigation is not always the best route for creating social change (especially in the context I suggested above), we feel that it is necessary and possible to create a legal mechanism to stop some of the systemic oppression faced by homeless folks.

The mayoral summit comes at a time when Portland, Seattle, LA, and many other cities around the country have declared states of “housing” or “homeless” emergency. Simultaneously, there has been an increasing trend in cities across the U.S. to criminalize the very existence of homeless individuals. The laws are not structured such that it is a literal crime to not have a house, but rather, it criminalizes activity that is necessary to survive when one doesn’t have a house.

For instance, back in 2006, the city of Orlando, FL criminalized sharing food with over 25 people in a public park within 2 miles of city hall.[5] The ordinance meant that churches and groups like Food Not Bombs would face arrest and fines for sharing food. Indeed, over 30 people were arrested for just that. Similarly, in other cities, the act of sleeping or simply sitting in a public place can result in numerous charges. The trend to criminalize the homeless is so bad that the U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a brief in a case in Boise, ID suggesting that the criminalization of basic life-sustaining activity like sleeping, may be a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The DOJ argued that, in the context of homelessness, “The ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishments’ Clause of the Eighth Amendment ‘imposes substantive limits on what can be made criminal and punished as such.’”[6]

We’ll see what the mayors come up with after the study is complete. In the meantime, perhaps we should look at the information and analyses we already have. I’m confident the cause is in plain sight, it just may take some effort to wipe away some of the ideological “scales” from the eyes of those who want to do something, yet can’t conceive of overturning the current economic system.

[1] It is worth noting that this position was taken almost immediately after a national news story touting a simple, cost-effective plan implemented by the state of Utah that led to a 91 percent reduction in chronic homelessness. See “Utah Reduced Chronic Homelessness By 91 Percent; Here’s How,” NPR, December 10, 2015.

[2] Brad Schmidt, “West Coast mayors: ‘We don’t understand enough’ about homeless people.” The Oregonian (OregonLive), December 10, 2015.

[3] Foster, John Bellamy, Robert W McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna. 2011. “The Global Reserve Army of Labor and the New Imperialism.” Monthly Review 63 (6): 1–31. [PDF].

[4] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 792 (London: Penguin, 1976).

[5] Sarah Anne Hughes, “Food Not Bombs group arrested for feeding homeless, violating Orlando ordinance,” June 3, 2011

[6] U.S. Department of Justice Statement of Interest in Bell v. City of Boise, http://www.justice.gov/opa/file/643766/download. Citing Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 667-68 (1977).


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