Tag Archives: #Poverty

Degenerate Matter

10.XI 2019

When a star exhausts its nuclear fuel, the balance tips in favor of gravity, and the star starts to collapse. In its final stage, it expels most of its outer material leaving the core as its only remain. This core becomes a very hot white dwarf. Rules governing “life” on a white dwarf are quite different from those on a normal star[1]. Highly compressed mater exposes the quantum mechanical nature of its constituents, which, when stripped down to their irreducible selves, obey the exclusion principle: no two particles can occupy the same state. As the density of such matter increases, so does its energy, pressure and temperature. In the dense matter, particles cannot slow down completely all at the same time. Some of them can, but once they occupy the low energy levels, those levels become inaccessible to the rest, so they start populating the next lowest levels and when those are filled, there come the next higher etc. When all available energy levels are filled, this is referred to as degenerate matter – it is an overcrowded environment where everyone suffers from acute claustrophobia.

Economic progress is intrinsically coupled with exclusion and exclusion with the production of excess population – those who fall through the cracks and cannot be reintegrated into the normal functioning of society. They represent a surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced and are earmarked for transport outside of the enclosure of prosperity. Their presence creates discomfort inside the enclosure and changes the underlying social dynamics. The longer the excess population rubs shoulders with “normal” folks, the more palpable precarity becomes everyone’s prospect and the less reassuringly safe anyone’s position seems[2].

The volume of excess population has come close to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet. This is one of the biggest and most acute problems of the developed world today. Every political administration in the USA has had a different proposal for managing the latent anxiety associated with it. This issue has shaped the transformation of the neoliberal state in the last decades from the welfare to the penal modality of its functioning[3]. The neoliberal response to the problem of growing excess population has been centered on the proliferation of underclasses as a counterweight to the prolapse of the eroding middle class and reinforcement of their illusory comfort. As a consequence, poverty has become more granular. In the last 50 years three new classes have emerged at the bottom. In addition to the four existing classes, The elite plutocracy, The Salariat, Proficians, and Proletariat, there are the three new structures at the bottom[4]: The precariat, The unemployed, and The lumpen precariat.

While the standard of living of the working class remains underwritten by forms of income other than money wages (e.g. welfare, social security, unemployment insurance, Medicare…), for the precariat, those benefits have largely disappeared. The combination of employment instability and income vulnerability defines the economic precarity of the precariat.

Precariat position centers on the increasing marginalization of many people from the rights normally associated with citizenship (disenfranchised, homeless, former prisoners, illegal immigrants…). The intersection of economic precarity with political marginality is what distinguishes the precariat from the working class. The precariat lacks the seven forms of labor-related security: labor market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security[5].

Mathematics of poverty

When it comes to wealth distribution, there is a general misconception about the role of randomness. Almost by default, randomness is misidentified as a sine qua non for fairness: If we let the chips fall where they may, randomness would guarantee equitable distributions — everyone will be happy. The false equivalence between randomness and fairness is incorrect and nowhere is it more forcefully invalidated than in the case of wealth accumulation and its distribution. In fact, the very opposite holds true: If it were up to the forces of randomness alone, unregulated and unattended, the outcome would be extreme wealth disparity – there would be very little in the middle of the distribution and most of it would be in the tails.

Extreme wealth goes hand in hand with extreme poverty and the depletion of the middle class. This is the mathematics of wealth accumulation alone, and holds true even if we do not account for the power, political influence, and intergenerational reinforcement it brings. The figure below shows the distribution of wealth determined by a repeated coin toss[6]: each participant gains or loses a unit of wealth if they get heads or tails respectively. This is repeated many times. The total wealth is displayed as a fraction of favorable tosses. For example, 0% means not a single heads outcome – the player is considered poor at the end; 50% reflects an equal number of favorable and unfavorable tosses – the wealth is unchanged; 100% is all favorable tosses – the wealth accumulation is maximal.

ArcSinDistribution

While new wealth (or its depletion) arrives in random installments, total individual wealth is mostly either steadily increasing or decreasing (with a relatively small fraction remaining stable). Most of the distribution is in the wings: 40% of the people are poor and 40% are rich, while only 20% are in the middle. Visually, this is a mirror image of the normal distribution where 2/3 of its mass resides in a two standard deviation band around the mean.

In reality, wealth is even more concentrated than this. The disparity due to randomness is amplified with each generation as initial conditions reinforce it further. This is exactly our current predicament. 20th century capitalism is a spectacular confirmation of this mathematical result. As much as this most amazing period of human history had been about enlightenment, emancipation, science, progress, and wealth, it had generated a staggering amount of poverty along the way.

Poverty used to be a safe place

Wealth is inherently empowering and motivating; poverty is neither [Jeffrey A. Winters].

The presence of wealth focuses the political attention of the rich on wealth defense; its absence has no parallel effect on the poor. Poverty by itself neither motivates nor provides a core set of common interests for the poor the way wealth does for the rich.

Capitalism never recognized poverty as its own, its endogeneity always denied and rationalized by deploying exogenous factors or attributed to imperfections of implementation. As it grew bigger and deeper, poverty became self-reproducing and multiplying.

No one has captured the essence of poverty better than the French poet Charles Péguy in his 1913 essay[7]: Poverty was an unspoken contract between man and destiny, and before the outset of post-modern times destiny had never reneged on this contract. We had known the times when a man condemned to poverty was at least secure in poverty. It was understood that those who wished to escape poverty, those who gambled, risked everything. Those who gambled could lose, but those who didn’t gamble could not lose. They could not have suspected that a time would come, that it was already here – and this, precisely is modern times – when those who do not gamble lose all the time, even more assuredly than those who do.

In postmodernity, this only became more extreme with the 21st century delivering the complete transformation. Paradoxically, the metamorphosis of poverty has been most striking across electoral democracies in developed economies where poverty became not only risky, but shameful and, with time, its criminalization became one of the main neoliberal projects[8] resulting in systematic social precarization and large-scale loss of citizens’ rights contributing to the rise of new underclasses. This particular mode of permanent exclusion short-circuited the feedback loop between their discontent and the political process. And nowhere has this transformation been more extreme and thorough than in post-modern America where the gambling mindset became a new paradigm, and gamblers new folk heroes, and where society gradually transformed from that of workers to risk takers and lottery winners.

The physics of social downgrade

There are always too many of them. ‘Them’ are the fellows whom there should be fewer – or better still none at all. And there are never enough ou us. ‘Us’ are the floks of whom there should be more. (Zygmunt Bauman)

At the bottom of the social scale, the stakes are lower and risks higher. Migrants, the new underclass of precariat, who flee their homes out of desperation represent the highest level of risk taking. They trade the certainty of poverty at home for the risk of precarity abroad, in the developed world and agree to populate the lowest social strata in exchange for an objectively infinitesimal chance of a better future.

Exhaustion of social libidinal energy, the equivalent of the nuclear fuel of a star, is the beginning of the creation of social degenerate matter. The more society is shaped as the winner-takes-all, the more extreme risk taking is set off and the more dire the consequences and deeper the downfalls, resulting in more crowding at the bottom layers of social underclasses.

Nothing frightens people as much as the prospect of their social degradation, of losing their social status or facing a class downgrade. This fear is managed by the creation of social underclasses. The rise of new modes of xenophobia is a result of the underlying class struggles at the bottom.

In post-war Western Europe, immigration issues were rarely (if ever) an important part of a political platform. An influx of immigrants was driven by demand for labor; their social position as precariat was controlled both administratively and culturally. Immigrants practically never had a shot at citizenship and neither did their offspring. There was no mixing with local folks due to impenetrable cultural barriers which were practically never challenged.

Celebrated by the capital for removal of economic rigidities and as a catalyst of free capital flow, globalization was, at the same time, a major disruption of the social equilibrium. By its very constitution, globalization guarantees porous boundaries for capital, and the basic condition for restoration of equilibrium requires that the same holds for labor. Social precarization, thus, became the process of formation of a new equilibrium, a consequence of a tradeoff between poverty and precarity. However, lumpy, intermittent surges in supply of precarity, sometimes as much as one million people at a time, put enormous stress, both fiscal and social, on domestic middle and lower-middle classes and threaten their social standing, especially in times when the crushing forces of the economic zero-sum game have become inescapable due to the depletion of growth and general libidinal forces. This has only become more acute in post-2008 years as policy response aimed at covering the costs of capitalist excesses began to exaggerate already preexisting social imbalances.

The lower middle class and domestic excess population don’t really mind minorities or immigrants as such, they just don’t want to see them climbing the existing social ladder – they want them and their offspring segregated and permanently prevented from getting a shot at it. The lower echelons of society need assurances and a buffer (political, institutional, and physical) that separates them from the true underclass. This is their new political demand, which they are being promised by the new populist leaders.

The images of detainment facilities and overall dehumanization of target groups (immigrants and minorities), tried and exploited so many times before, whose replay we have been seeing in the last years, are very powerful assurance tools in that context. Ritualistic denial of their humanity with gratuitous displays of cruelty, are essential parts of political strategy and communication tools between populist politicians and their base. Immigrants, in their view, need to be confined to the three lowest social groups and the walls – symbolic, administrative and (preferably) physical — between them and the rest of the population have to be permanent and impenetrable. As a cultural concept, these walls have an immeasurable symbolic value for the domestic underclass. This is the main reason why the issue of immigration has become a central part of every populist movement now (and not before), and why the idea of The Wall, as idiotic as it objectively is, cannot be abandoned by populist politicians if they want to have a chance of staying in power.

White dwarf capitalism

Ever since humanity bowed to the economy, all that is left is the freedom of hostility. The feeling of hate is the only thing that survived in people’s minds since the first days of the 20th century and the beginning of progress. It dominates today’s societies of abundance. (Paul Virilio)

Capitalism will not disappear, it will transform into managerial feudalism. In its final stages, capitalism functions very much like a collapsing star. When it exhausts its libidinal energy, it will turn into an economic and social white dwarf. The rules governing the behavior of such a social structure are very different from the laws describing traditional social organizations.

Degenerate matter, the fabric of white dwarfs, is not composed of atoms and molecules, but elementary particles. Stripped down to their irreducible selves and decontextualized, elementary particles no longer come together and form chemical bonds. There is no chemistry, no biology, and there is no life. Instead, there is a strict hierarchical order establish by particles’ intrinsic intolerance for each other. As basic social structures like family, clan, community, or congregation no longer function, when empathy is extinguished, and only individuals, stripped of their social context and governed exclusively by their own self-interests remain, society becomes a culture of elementary particles and turns into social degenerate matter.

White dwarfs are perfect undead objects. They are eternal[9] — it takes forever for them to cool and lose all their energy, longer than the life of the universe. Their constitution defines a perfect stasis: Everything is in its place inside a white dwarf; there is no room for anything to change. It is a perfect rigid order – a beautiful monstrosity without any attributes of life.

Civilizations rise and they collapse making way to new ones. White dwarfs do not have enough mass to collapse into neutron stars or black holes. They must endure a far harsher sentence than death: Eternity without the capacity to end their existence.

 

[1] As the density increases, so does the pressure, energy and the temperature (which is the average kinetic energy of the system). As a consequence, temperature of the white dwarfs exceeds 100,000 degrees. Density of white dwarfs is typically 200,000 times that of Earth and the gravity on their surface of is 350,000 times that of gravity on Earth. That means a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person on Earth would weigh 50 million pounds (22.7 million kg) on the surface of a white dwarf.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity; 1 edition (2003)

[3] ibid.

[4] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic; 1st edition (2011)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jamil Baz and George Chacko, Financial Derivatives: Pricing, Applications, and Mathematics, Cambridge University Press (2004)

[7] Charles Péguy, d’Argent, Des Equateurs (2008)

[8] While neoliberalism produces social and economic vulnerability, criminalization produces ways to capitalize on that vulnerability. The criminalization of illicit drugs accomplishes three things at once. First, it reinforces socioeconomic vulnerability through a steady flow of pre-trial detainees, prisoners, parolees and families disrupted by harshly punitive sanctions. Second, it makes the economic viability of hard drugs dependent on a willingness to assume risk, especially as entry-level narco-labor. This willingness is a condition clearly associated with the socioeconomically marginalized – those who have little to lose but their “freedom”. Third, it guarantees accessibility of hard drugs to the disenfranchised segment of the population. In this way, the very victims of global capitalism are trapped in the spider web of the carceral state and the more they struggle to survive in it, the more precarious their position becomes.

[9] As the theory goes, white dwarfs should, in principle, gradually cool down and stop emitting light and eventually morph into black dwarfs. However, this is a very slow process – the period of the transformation would take in excess of 14 billion years – more than the age of the universe. Thus, the mortality of the white dwarfs is an entirely academic question. For all purposes, white dwarfs are universally eternal.

The poverty of technology and the technology of poverty

14. IV 2018

Charles-Avery two dogs

It was one of those rainy and damp days, I was finding my way out of the F-train subway on Bergen St. in Brooklyn. On the mezzanine level, in the corner of the stairwell, I noticed a young man, couldn’t have been much older than 30. Rain was slowly cascading into the subway, small puddles forming everywhere forcing him into an uncomfortable squat instead of a sitting position. His appearance was modest; he looked tired and lonely, but not destitute. There were none of the signs of physical neglect usually seen in homeless people – he looked like someone who had access to a bed and sanitary facilities. There was a money tray with a few coins in front of him indicating that he had been there for some time. The man seemed relaxed and disinterested in making eye contact with passersby. He appeared preoccupied with what was happening on his iPhone, most likely Instagram or the traffic on the social networks.

Panhandlers with smartphones are unusual sight – it is not just the price of the accessory that is at odds with their social status, but the entire protocol: the price of connectivity, how they pays their bills, which assumes a checking account; purchases of apps, which requires possession of a credit card suggesting some king of credit history… Things just don’t add up. However, as much as the two were an odd combination, it was difficult to dismiss the thought that, on some level, they shared the same causal connector, and they stand as two representations of the same underlying cause of social degradation. While poverty is a consequence of the system’s inherent urge to cannibalize itself, tech, on the other hand, has become the other face of resistance to change.

The panhandler and the smartphone together unify the worlds of thrift store shoppers and the high tech of Silicon Valley. The following chart brings us closer to the origin of this unstrange connection. It shows three price histories representing roughly three different social segments of the stock market. Dollar Tree is a chain of discount variety stores in the US. It sells an assortment of everyday general merchandise; it is a lower end version of Walmart, with most goods priced at or below $1. It is the place where poor folks buy their stuff. Since 2001 (the perception of) the value of Dollar Tree has increased by 11 times, while during the same time Apple, which needs no introduction, has had a 140-fold rise. For comparison, S&P or other benchmark stock indices have grown “only” 2 times.

The coordination between two histories is not a story of correlations in the sense normally used in statistics, but of a different type of commonality, the most interesting point being not their mutual causation, but the timing they share. Between 2008 and 2009, S&P index –the “social median” of the stock market– lost 50% of its value. It took four years for it to recover. In contrast, Dollar Tree, the poor man’s outlet, starts its big takeoff in 2008 with the stock price practically quadrupling during the subsequent four years. This timing and trend are in synch with all other measures of rise in poverty[1]. This is also the moment when Apple’s explosive rise begins.

DLT

The poverty of digital nations: Silicon Valley meets thrift shop

While the middle of the affluent sector of society (S&P world) advanced in “moderate” steps, the wings on both sides have outpaced it by a wide margin. Two seemingly different entities on opposite sides of the social spectrum – the beneficiaries of growing poverty and of the technological boom — register a common inflection point around the time of the deepest financial and social crises in modern history.

Dollar Tree’s success in the last ten years has been a function of demand created by an explosive supply of poverty; Apple’s rise has been an indirect beneficiary of its side effects. As social reality was disintegrating, the void it created was filled by its virtual surrogate with Apple acting as the main subcontractor in the process of digitalization of social relations. This ties the panhandler and the iPhone together as a result of centrifugal forces of social fragmentation and the disappearance of the middle into the extremes.

The poverty of technology: Rent economy cannibalizes itself

As the economy transitions from material to immaterial, innovations become its main focus. If one can come up with a technological innovation that enables him or her to manufacture a product for 10 cents and sell it for over $200 on a sustained basis, all subsequent profits will be reinvested in that direction. In markets with strict intellectual property laws prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. In this way, innovation becomes a source of Rent.

Rent is the most irresistible source of income. At the same, time it is economically and socially intolerable. If someone somewhere is paid without doing any work, then someone somewhere works without getting paid. Rent economy is a voluntary slavery. Employment becomes the right to be exploited and unemployment is denial of that right. However, when there is no need for labor, and freedom is a constitutional right of every citizen, there are slaves without masters roaming around without anything to do. They become the excess of population.

Irresistible resistance to change

In the past, technology always generated new demand and forced people to reinvent their skills to accommodate for the new needs. This is no longer the case. Modern technology destroys more jobs than it creates. As such, it has become the main destabilizing force. Its basic commodity is immaterial – it costs nothing to produce an idea. If labor is the main cost of production, relocating the production centers to regions with the cheapest labor becomes the dominant mode of profit maximization. In this way, low production costs abroad create precariat at home.

Profit chasing leads to geographic displacement and social and cultural dislocations. Through their deterritorialization the elites lose their social footing. Their riches decouple from the well-being of society. The Keynesian bond, which used to tie the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses. The possibility, provided by a global capital market, of rescuing themselves and their families by exiting together with their possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich not to be interested in the social impact of their actions[2].

This is not sustainable in the long run. Once the exploitation becomes global and all alternatives are exhausted, the system has to collapse. The main question is: Who can act as an agent of change? Who represents the new social archetype of post-capitalism — a descendent of the medieval knight in feudalism or bourgeoisie in industrial capitalism?

Paul Mason has argued that a composite picture of that type would correspond to a Universal Educated Person. Their skill set is a fusion of managerial and intellectual abilities. Such a person needs to be a bearer of the new social relations inside the old, interested in engaging in political discourse with the intention of triggering change on the social level, and appear in large numbers. Currently, the “T-shirted bourgeoisie”, although fitting the description of a universal educated person with the right skills, does not want to reconfigure the system – rather, they favor a monopolistic structure and extraction of Rent[3], without much regard for the long-term consequences. Instead of being guardians of the future and sustainability, Silicon Valley billionaires prefer to invest in doomsday bunkers and property in New Zealand.

The technology of poverty and society of tiredness

When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production. This is the main difference with respect to industrial age when material production defined the tensions between capital and labor. In cognitive capitalism, we are talking about, what B. C. Han calls the Achievement society, where everyone is entrepreneur of themselves, the exploiter and the exploited, the master and the slave, at the same time. Everyone is trapped in the auto-exploitation out of which there is no escape through resistance or uprising, but through internalizing his or her discontent through withdrawal and depression[4]. Zygmunt Bauman sees this as a social death spiral: The uncertainty of the Achievement society is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value. Contemporary fears, anxieties and grievances are made to be suffered alone[5].

The society of achievement is generating tiredness and exhaustion. This is a solitary and divisive tiredness with separating effect[6]. Digitalization of social relations is a response to this state of affairs. It fills the vacuum created by achievement society by providing a virtual supplement that makes isolation bearable by satisfying our ontological resistance to isolation. Social digitalization creates contours of a community; it transposes, to use Peter Handke’s terminology, I-tiredness into We-tiredness[7] while, at the same time, reinforcing isolation by creating a phantasmatic layer and illusion of self-sufficiency. Infinite plasticity of the digital society – ability to be shaped at our will — is intrusive and invasive: One can be anything one desires by creating an avatar and digital persona of any shape, form, and ability. This is virtual doping: It makes possible to achieve without achieving[8].

Social digitalization makes it possible to conceive of a community that requires neither belonging nor relation. The existence of a community, albeit virtual, results in an immanent religion of tiredness, one that needs no kinship. This is where smartphones come in. Here is Frankfurt School and B. C. Han, one more time:

Every technology or technique of domination brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects naturalize and stabilize domination. Devotion means submission to obedience. Smartphones represent devotion – indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital. They work like a rosary, which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device too. Both (the smartphones and rosary) serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen”[9].

 

[1]Since 2008, the number of people on food stamps has almost doubled – there is currently around 50 million people on food stamps in the US. During the same period, the fraction of the population living below poverty level has increased from 12% to 15%. These are just continuation of the long term secular trends underscoring the social fragmentation of the late 20th century. For the bottom 90% of Americans, living standards have not changed since 1970s. In contrast, for the top 1% they have risen 5 times and for the top 0.01% by 10 times in the last 50 years.

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso (2016)

[3] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)

[4] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft Burnoutgesellschaft Hoch-Zeit, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2016)

[5] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[6] Peter Handke, Versuch über die Müdigkeit (in Die drei Versuche), Suhrkamp (1998)

[7] Peter Handke, ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Fischer (2015)

[9] B. C. Han, ibid.