U.S. and World Politics

Uses for the Poor

By Susan Roberts

When Jonathan Swift penned A Modest Proposal, suggesting ways for preventing the poor from becoming a burden on the state, he was obviously being ironic. As was often his wont, the great satirist, in suggesting that the children of the poor be served up as a new culinary delicacy, was really having a poke at the rich and powerful who were profiting from the poverty of itinerant Irish peasants, many of whom had been evicted from their land and forced into destitution. So far as Swift could see, such a gastronomic innovation would well suit the racketeering landlords, “who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”1

The germ of Swift’s proposal, which he wrote in 1729, stemmed from his awareness that there was no work for the landless peasantry. And, as there was no physical use to which they could be put, he surmised that other means would have to be found for utilizing this early precariat if any value was to be extracted from their sad lives. What is perhaps most remarkable about Swift’s proposal is just how prescient it has turned out to be. For in the world of post-industrial, and increasingly post-labor capitalism, novel and innovative ways are indeed being found for deriving a profitable return from the poorest members of society. Terms like “the underclass,” “surplus people,” “the precariat,” even “unpeopled” and “zombie culture” give a sense of the new era of exploitation we are now entering where what is key is not the productive power to which a laboring body can be put, as those times have now largely passed. Rather profit, considerable profit, is now being extracted from a new form of utilizing the less advantaged. A kind of colonization of biographical life is underway in which the social reproduction of life itself is being made accessible for private exploitation. Through a range of medical, therapeutic, criminal and social interventions deemed necessary by the state, the lives of the poor have been turned over to private enterprise for management, censure and treatment.

Incarceration is, probably, the starkest form of commodification where simply warehousing flesh brings a return. The cost of penal servitude in the U.S. varies from state to state, but an average of around $30,000-per-year can be made by simply keeping a body shut in a cell. Bearing in mind that over 20 prisoners are often locked up together, it isn’t a bad return on a tiny speck of, often sub-standard, real estate.2 However, servitude is best seen as a gateway to a whole raft of exploitative practices, as even basic amenities, such as making a phone call, or receiving a money transfer are charged at exorbitant rates. In fact some sort of “tariff” is levied on just about every aspect of prison life, with many in jail even receiving a bill for their stay.3 And, since indebtedness itself is a criminal offence, the door back into prison is never quite closed.4 Parole, probation, tagging, repetitive drug testing and a wide range of coercive practices are other lucrative uses to which the incarcerated or recently released can be put. Thus, ex-cons are not delivered back to the pre-incarceration world, but remain permanently suspended in a kind of “felonized limbo” in which the only way out is down.

The figures around incarceration in the U.S. tell a brutal story, particularly if you are an African American, as Michelle Alexander recounts in The New Jim Crow. There has been a massive 700 percent increase in the prison population in the past four decades with two out of three men imprisoned being Black, notwithstanding the fact that African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the total U.S. population.  As California’s mass prison building program, which began in the 1980s, took place against the back drop of a falling crime rate, the most obvious explanation for this carceral expansion is a coalescence of political and corporate interests, discernibly embodied in A.L.E.C: The American Legislative Exchange Council.5 As its name suggests, A.L.E.C. doesn’t waste time wooing delegates; instead it pro-actively produces the legislation it wants passed and simply gets its emissaries to fill in the blanks.

In addition to the considerable profits earned by the correctional industry, (which is also the country’s third largest employer,)—CoreCivic, the biggest such corporation, made profits in excess of $220m in 2015—many private companies, making products as diverse as airplane parts and sexy underwear, have been attracted by the “outsourcing without a language problem” slogan that is prison fare. In 2012 Unicor: the public company which uses prison inmates, earning $0.23-$1.15-an-hour, to produce goods for government contracts, began inviting other corporations to co-invest and enjoy the financial benefits of what is essentially slave labor.6

Whereas Alexander laments that so many incarcerated, and subsequently stigmatized, Black men are “locked out” of the mainstream economy and society, Loic Wacquant, in his examination of penal colony America, recognizes that this is already mainstream.7 Wacquant’s focus is not on mass incarceration per se, rather, he sees it as a further development of state power, which has nothing to do with growing criminality but with the state’s need to readjust power relations within wider society. As Wacquant astutely observes in his aptly entitled opening chapter, “America as Living Laboratory of the Neo-Liberal Future,” a restrictive workfare and an expansive prison-fare are inter-related, giving the neoliberal state a “distinctively paternalistic visage” which translates into “intensified intrusion and castigatory oversight.” Wacquant is surely correct in identifying the social retrenchment of the state as a dislocating force within society, an effect of which has been the stratification of urban poverty, giving rise to “a new form of citizenship for those trapped at the bottom of the polarizing class structure.”

What is most notable about this new “warehousing” of the poor is just how reminiscent of early capitalism it is. Jeremy Bentham’s corporate proposal: “Pauper Management Improved,” published in 1796, even looks like a forerunner of Unicor, with its stated aim to have absolute authority over “the whole body of the burdensome poor” through setting up a network of workhouses to contain the unemployed, “So many industry-houses, so many crucibles, in which dross of this kind [the poor] is converted into sterling.”8 For, as Michael Perelman points out in his study of the brutal primitive accumulation which accompanied, or in many ways was a forerunner to, the establishment of capitalism in industrializing England, but has largely been airbrushed out of historical accounts, “Bentham understood that the struggle to subdue the poor would spill over into every aspect of life.” For once people had been forced from their homes and denied their customary rights of self-subsistence steps would have to be taken to force them into poverty wage labor.

Even the commentary of the time, primarily from the idle rich, attacking the sloth of dispossessed peasants, is remarkably similar to today’s arguments for cutting welfare. Raising the price of necessities, cutting holidays, lengthening the working day, even slavery were proposed as ways to make the poor work harder and longer. In fact much of the argument surrounding child labor wasn’t concerned with what children could actually produce, but about “habituating the rising generation to constant employment.”9 What is different today is that the state has learned to disguise its oppressive practices in a therapeutic terminology.  Convincing the jobless that their impecuniosity is a personal failing, attributable to some imagined lack of aspiration or character flaw is doubly advantageous. Not only does it bury the thorny subject of class conflict, but it also inculcates an exploitable dependency. So it is an imputed “low self-esteem” or “need for dignity” which justifies cutting somebody’s welfare payments. Individuals are said to be “trapped on welfare” not because of a lack of decent wage jobs but due to an imagined “lack of self-esteem.” Republican congressman Todd Tiarht, in a discussion on welfare reform argued, “You cannot have self-esteem without accomplishment. You cannot have accomplishment without work.”10 But, then as now, much of the commentary concerning the evils of the “idle poor” doesn’t convert into concern for the leisure activities of the idle rich. Nobody seems to worry much about the self-esteem of the vastly unaccomplished rentier class.

As Wacquant points out, what is most noteworthy about the state’s punitive approach to social collapse is just how little protest it has elicited from the Left. No doubt this is largely due to the political clout of an expanded and co-opted middle class, which bought into the early rounds of privatizations, has benefited hugely from the neo-liberal project, and now sees itself very much as a “stakeholder” in the corporate state. Given that the middle class is not only the decisive group electorally, but also the class involved in “continuous boundary work”11—desperate to be accepted by the elites and terrified of falling back—it is small wonder that so many Leftist political parties have aligned themselves with the market and espouse so-called “middle class values.” The redaction of primitive accumulation from the history of capitalism, and the resultant pretense that people volunteered to give up self-subsistence and embrace lives of wage-slavery maintains the facade that the state is neutral and that the working class is inherently lazy and feckless, requiring constant chiding and direction from their betters. And, given that so much middle class employment, status and financial security is based on that version of capitalism, it is indeed a useful fiction. In fact so widespread has the consumption of the poor become that one can only assume that were Swift to survey the scene today he would note that far from being a culinary delicacy reserved for the tables of “fine gentlemen,” the working class has become the staple diet for much of the bourgeois economy.

CounterPunch, April 18, 2018

1 Jonathan Swift, Major Works, Ed., Angus Ross and David Woolley, (Oxford: O.U.P., 2003)

2 VERA Institute of Justice; The Price of Prisons 2012




6 13thAmendment prohibits involuntary servitude except for the punishment of a crime.

7 Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, (London: Duke University Press, 2009)

8 Jeremy Bentham, quoted in Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), 21

9 Perelman, 19

10 James L. Nolan, The Therapeutic State, (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 222

11 Steffen Mau, Inequality, Marketization and the Majority Class, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), xi