Thursday, March 4, 2021

Disposable People

Disposable people are indispensable. Who else would fight the wars? Who would preach? Who would short derivatives? Who would go to court and argue both sides? Who would legislate? Who would sell red hots at the old ball game?

For too long disposable people have been misrepresented as destitute, homeless, unemployed, or at best precariously employed. True, the destitute, the homeless, the unemployed and the precarious are indeed treated as disposable but most disposable people pursue respectable professions, wear fashionable clothes, reside in nice houses, and keep up with the Jones.

Disposable people are defined by what they do not produce. They do not grow food. They do not build shelters. They do not make clothes. They also do not make the tractors used to grow food, the tools to build shelters or the equipment to make clothes.

Although disposable people do not produce necessities what they do is not unnecessary. It is simply that the services they provide are not spontaneously demanded as soon as one acquires a bit of additional income. One is unlikely, however, to engage the services or purchase the goods produced by disposable people unless one is in possession of disposable income. Disposable income is the basis of disposable people. Conversely, disposable people are the foundation of disposable income.

Sometimes, disposable people have been called "unproductive." It sounds harsh but it is only meant in a technical sense. In the late 1950s, '60s, and '70s debate raged in academic Marxist circles about the distinction between "productive" and "unproductive" labour. The main issue had to do with the distinction between labour that produced surplus value for capital and labour that didn't, whether or not the product or service was useful or necessary. One further refinement had to do with whether the labour produced reproductive surplus value in the form of wages goods (or services) or machinery. In this view, labour performed producing luxury goods would be unproductive, even though it appeared to produce surplus value for the employing capitalist. In fact, though, it only assisted in appropriating surplus value produced elsewhere.

I suspect these debates could have been illuminated by Marx's Grundrisse or even more so by the 1821 pamphlet by Charles Wentworth Dilke, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. That pamphlet explicitly excluded the manufacture of luxury goods from the process of capital accumulation and clearly explained why. The production of luxury goods destroys reserved surplus labour rather than establishing the conditions for its accumulation and expansion. Jean-Baptiste Say would have agreed:

Misery is the inseparable companion of luxury. The man of wealth and ostentation squanders upon costly trinkets, sumptuous repasts, magnificent mansions, dogs, horses, and mistresses, a portion of value, which, vested in productive occupation, would enable a multitude of willing labourers, whom his extravagance now consigns to idleness and misery, to provide themselves with warm clothing, nourishing food, and household conveniences.

So much for supply creating it own demand. 

Dilke contended that if capital was allowed to actually accumulate, the rate of interest paid for its use would rapidly fall to zero because the accumulation of capital was very limited, "if the happiness of the whole, and not the luxuries of a few, is the proper subject for national congratulation." When that limit was reached, the hours of labour could be drastically reduced, "where men heretofore laboured twelve hours they would now labour six, and this is national wealth, this is national prosperity." "Wealth… is disposable time, and nothing more."

Dilke's disposable time may well have been an oblique rejoinder to Thomas Chalmers's (1808) concept of disposable population. Chalmers was as upbeat about the expansion of disposable population as Dilke was wary about the increase of unproductive labour. Dilke was an ardent follower of William Godwin, as had been Chalmers until he was converted by Thomas Malthus's polemic against Godwin on population. In the Grundrisse, Marx appears to have been enchanted by Dilke's concept of disposable time.

Nearly a century after publication of The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, Stephen Leacock's The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice was serialized in the New York Times. At its core was the same dilemma at the heart of Dilke's pamphlet, with all the vast improvements of productive machinery, why weren't ordinary people better off and why were the hours of work still so long?

If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man accomplishes almost thirty or forty times what he did before, then the world at large ought to be about thirty or fifty times better off. But it is not. Or else, as the other possible alternative, the working hours of the world should have been cut down to about one in thirty of what they were before. But they are not. How, then, are we to explain this extraordinary discrepancy between human power and resulting human happiness?

Leacock imagined an observer looking down from the moon on a production process that stopped short of producing enough necessities, and then again stopped short of producing enough comforts to shift, "while still stopping short of a general satisfaction, to the making of luxuries and superfluities." Leacock was a student of Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago and was clearly influenced by Veblen's philosophy. A passage in Dilke's pamphlet that imagines the "last paragraph" of a future historian uncannily anticipates Veblen's concept of pecuniary emulation:

The increase of trade and commerce opened a boundless extent to luxury:—the splendour of luxurious enjoyment in a few excited a worthless, and debasing, and selfish emulation in all:—The attainment of wealth became the ultimate purpose of life:— the selfishness of nature was pampered up by trickery and art:—pride and ambition were made subservient to this vicious purpose…

Inspired by Leacock's Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Arthur Dahlberg's Jobs, Machines and Capitalism was described by Louis Rich in the New York Times as "one of the most valuable, both theoretically and practically, since the writings of Veblen." Dahlberg's argument influenced Senator Hugo Black's legislation for a thirty-hour work week. 

At the core of Dahlberg's theory was the observation that, as machines replaced human labour in core industries, more and more workers were reabsorbed into "miscellaneous" employment, providing services and manufacturing goods that were not spontaneously demanded. They became disposable people in disposable jobs. Demand for these goods and services had to be artificially created through advertising, gratuitous product differentiation, built-in obsolescence, and salesmanship. Consequently, the bargaining power of labour was weakened, and capital was empowered to take a larger share of national income. The goods and services this higher income group were then encouraged to consume with their expanded incomes became increasingly frivolous, as did the new investments available to absorb the rest of their income. Eventually higher income earners would spurn the unappetizing new consumption and investment opportunities and hoard their excess income. Economic recession would ensue.

As had Leacock, Dahlberg cited the example of the First World War as an episode in which a shortage of labour imposed an unaccustomed discipline of efficiency on capital. They both argued that a permanent shortage of labour could be achieved through reduction of the hours of work. Such a shortage would lead to greater industrial efficiency, less waste, higher wages, more leisure, and, ultimately, the elusive goal of social justice.

The chance that Dahlberg, Leacock, or Veblen would have read The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties is slim but not impossible. Herbert Foxwell mentioned the pamphlet in his introduction and bibliography to AugustAnton Menger's The right to the whole produce of labour (1899). In Veblen's " The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers" he mentions "Foxwell's admirable Introduction to Menger." More probable is some familiarity by Veblen with William Godwin's views on leisure, possibly through the unlikely intermediary of Harriet Martineau's writing. In Society in America, Martineau wrote the following tribute to Godwin, leisure, and… disposable time:

The first attempt to advocate leisure as the birthright of every human being was made now some half-century ago. [Godwin's Inquirer] The plea then advanced is a sound one on behalf of other things besides philosophy, literature and scholarship. Leisure, some degree of it, is necessary to the health of every man's spirit. Not only intellectual production, but peace of mind cannot flourish without it. It may be had under the present system, but it is not. With community of property, it would be secured to everyone. The requisite amount of work would bear a very small proportion to that of disposable time.

Leisure as the birthright of every human being? Harriet Martineau? Disposable time?


Owen Paine said...

Leisure must be socially produced
And promoted

The work

Is up to US

Anonymous said...

Likely I do not understand this essay, though I have read through the text twice, but belittling "my" work offends me. Belittling, say, a soldier, when soldiers are indeed necessary for us, makes no sense and bothers me. I happen to love my work and dearly appreciate the work of others from a market fruit seller to the mail-woman who is so important to me.

I respect work and as my parents do not intend to stopping working and are not about to have this writer judge the value of my work.

Please then, show me how to appreciate this essay.

Anonymous said...

I mean no disrespect in being critical. I just want to know why I should appreciate this essay which devalues so much work that I appreciate. What do I need to understand?

Chantelle said...

Have you read Achille Mbembe's Necropolitics essay or book. This is what it is about, precisely. He is a professor at the European Graduate School and is teaching this summer.

Sandwichman said...


No, I haven't. Thanks for the reference!

Anonymous said...

Please, another attempt. For me, the point of much of life is working in a way that satisfying. That means creating satisfying work opportunities for people, especially people for whom there is too little work opportunity and there are so many such people in this country. When I meet a person who has worked contentedly for a long, long time I am happy for the person. I respect work and workers, and was raised to do so.

Here work as such does not seem to be respected. Please, please explain what I am missing even if you think I am completely wrong.

Anonymous said...

I mentioned soldier, because were there no soldiers Germany and Japan would have literally destroyed entire peoples in the 1930s and 1940s. Japan was bent on destroying China, Germany was bent on destroying the Jewish people. Soldiers were needed.

I wish I had better words, but I am trying.

Sandwichman said...


PART of your complaint should be addressed to Thomas Chalmers, who came up with the term "disposable population" and populated it with the occupations that didn't furnish food, clothing or shelter. What I am trying to do in my essay is call attention to Chalmers's term and its immanent critique, disposable time.

There is a deeper layer of analysis of disposable people that I only allude to but that Chantelle appears to have picked up on right away. Chalmers celebrated disposable people particularly for their military availability. More disposable people improved the nation's capability to wage war. This "solution," however, creates a dilemma -- an "unsolved riddle," if you will. An economy of disposable people is only fully engaged when it is at war.

War is the only thing that makes the surplus population of disposable people indispensable. That is why we can not have "leisure as the birthright of every human being."

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the fine, fine response.

I am thinking of China, which has created work for literally hundreds of millions of people these last decades; work that was meant to be rewarding and has become increasingly so. Imagine an entire people and no severe poverty and China is promising workers much more from here.

China has soldiers, of course, but I can imagine no way around this and China has not been at war for more than 40 years and then fortunately only briefly.

Doesn't China show a productive and rewarding way out for many other peoples?

Could a Canada have no disposable people?

Anonymous said...

After all, the American response to the coronavirus makes me think we considered more than 500,000 people disposable. The BMJ British Medical Journal wrote of "social murder."

February 4, 2021

Covid-19: Social murder, they wrote—elected, unaccountable, and unrepentant

Anonymous said...

The British political elite too evidently thought many, many people were disposable. Sweden? To me these countries were redefining social democracy or perhaps I was too naïve.

Anonymous said...

How can Sweden be considered a social democracy in the wake of the coronavirus? China fought to save every person and protect every person. In Sweden, people were disposable enough to have a simply terrible death and illness experience. Little Sweden did far worse than all of China, even absolutely. How can this be?

Anonymous said...

March 5, 2021



Cases   ( 684,961)
Deaths   ( 13,003)

Deaths per million   ( 1,282)


Cases   ( 89,952)
Deaths   ( 4,636)

Deaths per million   ( 3)

Sandwichman said...

"Doesn't China show a productive and rewarding way out for many other peoples?"

Two points about China, with the proviso that I am not a China expert and have to rely on others' analysis and reporting. The first thing is China's huge reliance on foreign investment and trade with the wealthy nations of Europe and the United States. It seems to me, therefore, that we can't abstract a China-system from the global economy of commodity production and trade.

The second point is migrant workers, who do not have the right to reside in the urban areas where they work. Wikipedia gives the number of 290 million. I don't know if that number is correct but that is a large population that is, in effect, territorially "disposable." Now, it is obvious that the migrant workers are "better off" than if they had remained in their rural homes. Otherwise, why would they leave? Nevertheless, they remain as a very large group of workers who do not have full rights to decent employment standards and compensation.

You may disagree with the accuracy of my information or its significance but my question remains whether large-scale reliance on foreign trade and internal migration offers a blueprint for other countries. It certainly doesn't IMHO for Canada, the United States and Western Europe.

Anonymous said...

The second point is migrant workers, who do not have the right to reside in the urban areas where they work....

[ This has been important, but is fast being changed as part of the poverty and rural development program. The object is to create rewarding work in rural communities, which will be a prime objective through the coming 5-year plan. I can and will further explain. ]

The first thing is China's huge reliance on foreign investment and trade with the wealthy nations of Europe and the United States. It seems to me, therefore, that we can't abstract a China-system from the global economy of commodity production and trade....

[ Again, important but changing fast. The Belt and Road Initiative is indicative of the change. I will discuss this later. ]

Anonymous said...

I will return, but for sure there are to be no territorially disposable people as development continues. Xi Xinjing has experience in this and such people are not forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Terrific, tangible argument:

Andy Mok @andymok

Is Socialism with Chinese characteristics a benevolent and humane system? In this thread I argue that it is and explain why: Many around the world, especially in the United States, are still trapped in a benighted, primitive and perniciously toxic superstition

10:24 PM · Feb 28, 2021

Anonymous said...

Now, this is the perfect time to look at development planning in China since the coming 5-year proposals and plan are being discussed and will be voted on by general assembly delegates. The proposals are collected from regions through China and have been gradually refined; the plan will be transparent.

Shaped by your thinking, I can easily present elements of the plan in the wake of severe poverty elimination as lessening the number of people who might otherwise be termed "disposable" both domestically and along the Belt and Road. The range will be from strengthening social security to infrastructure development through Pakistan (CPEC, are the program initials) with mutually beneficial trade as an objective.

Anonymous said...

About migrants urban residency rights an important instance of change comes from Beijing, where a partner city is being built outside of Beijing. The partner city will be the administrative locale, complete with new residence, while Beijing will be the commercial and cultural locale, complete with added residence. The cities share infrastructure. The new area is nearing completion.

Similarly, thinking about the Belt and Road, Branko Milanovic and I suggest the Marshall Plan as a parallel. Building a railroad to the sea for landlocked Ethiopia or unlocking-landlocked Laos not for extractive trade but commercial exchange on a roughly even technical level. The US threatened Rwanda to allow used clothing to be exported from the US to Rwanda and so undermining clothing production in the African country. That is not trade China will be conducting.

Anonymous said...

Sandwichman: the meetings in China now are perfectly fitted to the gist of your essay. The proceeding are translated and written about on CGTN, Xinhuanet and GlobalTimes. I can discuss them as you wish. There is a revelation there for those who can learn wish objectivity, but objectivity about China is very, very difficult now in our countries.

Still, understand what it means to have had 535,000 coronavirus deaths in the US and 4,636 exactly in China from the beginning to now. People of no account in the US, were of account in China and a number of other countries such as New Zealand or Thailand or Vietnam... As for me, I am asking what this means. Branko Milanovic is asking as well:

January 22, 2021

Beware of mashup indexes: how epidemic predictors got it all wrong

Anonymous said...

The essay, which I have read 3 times, is brilliant and compelling, and leads me to better understand just how important a China that is working at steadily increasing economic inclusion is as a model.  We have a country that in 1980 had a per capita GDP that was a little more than half that of India, but in 2020 had come to eliminate severe poverty having grown in per capita terms far faster through these years than any major economy had grown.  The point has been in effect the inclusion of people, steadily lessening what it is to be disposable.

There is more to come.

Anonymous said...,134,534,158,111,&s=PPPPC,&sy=1980&ey=2020&ssm=0&scsm=1&scc=0&ssd=1&ssc=0&sic=0&sort=country&ds=.&br=1

October 15, 2020

Gross Domestic Product per capita based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) for China, Germany, India, Japan and United States, 1980 & 2020


China   ( 307)
Germany   ( 11,143)
India   ( 533)
Japan   ( 8,948)
United States   ( 12,553)


China   ( 17,206)
Germany   ( 53,571)
India   ( 6,284)
Japan   ( 41,637)
United States   ( 63,051)

Anonymous said...

I know far too well the disdain that has been created in America towards China and that unfortunately includes Britain and Australia and seemingly even Canada, but try to look to objectively what China is becoming and understand how well the experience of China relates to this essay.

Anonymous said...

Note; Wikipedia has unfortunately been edited to often distort an understanding of China and should be used on China with caution. This really is unfortunate, but the disdain for China that has been carefully cultivated is difficult to get past.

Anonymous said...

When hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from severe poverty and have become necessary people, no longer disposable, and are leading increasingly satisfying lives, notice should be taken:

March 3, 2021

From the Soil: Deyang – A legend of the sea in the mountains

In the video series "From the Soil," CGTN invites development experts to visit China's rural regions to investigate the methods used to reduce poverty and examine how they can be applied to global poverty alleviation work. In the 13th episode, Mario Cavolo, a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, heads to Deyang City, Sichuan Province, to find out how a man-made sea reduced poverty there.

China is the most populous country in the world, and despite its vast territory, it still faces a shortage of arable land, few resources per capita and an uneven distribution.

Sichuan is one of China's most populous provinces, but rolling mountain ranges occupy large areas of its land, making it difficult for villagers in the mountains to get out and for resources to get in, and many villages have long suffered from poverty as a result. In Deyang, however, people have built a little sea and a Gaohuai Cultural Village, which in turn has lifted people out of poverty. And this is how they achieved it....

Anonymous said...

I tried; a country that has been been lessening the number of disposable people by more than 10 million a year, year after year, should be credited. Likely though, for too many economists this is the wrong country. I will try again.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I realize I am a nuisance, but this essay is brilliant and I thank you so much for it.

Thank you for the writing and kindness.

J. Bruce Hughes said...

This great essay makes me think of the late, great David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs.

Sandwichman said...

Thank you, Bruce. That is a great compliment.

Calgacus said...

That's Anton Menger, Carl's brother. No economist August Menger. My hypothesis is that Marx & Engels' response to that book was a major self-inflicted wound that helped put their followers on blind alleys. They responded to Menger's not entirely misdirected ideas with naysaying so excessive it practically deprived their own theory and policy of positive content. So what else was left but turning to sloganeering, rigidity and pious wishes they deplored? Anyhow, that's how I remember reading their response.

Calgacus said...

Anonymous: I tried; a country that has been been lessening the number of disposable people by more than 10 million a year, year after year, should be credited. Likely though, for too many economists this is the wrong country. I will try again.

Agree with everything you've said. The way today's China is discussed and treated in today's West is shameful and embarrassing. China is and should be a model; the objections are trivial and underinformed. As an American, I might suggest that FDR's New Deal was a decent model for China and its rise. I think Chinese histories of that era in the USA are probably better than the current Western ones! From the right, center and left!, their uniform consensus about our own history is as appallingly, as provably wrong as today's mean-spirited view of China.

Your usage of "disposable people", is more similar to Kevin Bales', more standard English than Sandwichman's - he may be trying to épater les bourgeois. "Disposable people" sounds much, much worse, horrifyingly worse, for the "unproductive people" he is talking about.

Neither are optimal locutions in my opinion, but "unproductive" is much better for what he is talking about, "disposable" for what you just said - meaning "disadvantaged [underpriviliged, deprived, discriminated-against] people" there.

Sandwichman said...


You're right. Anton Menger, not August. However, it was Engels and Kautsky, not Engels and Marx, who replied harshly to Menger. I haven't read Engels and Kautsky on Menger but obviously should.

My use of "disposable people" is a historical one referencing Chalmers's "disposable populations" and their relation to "disposable income" as the rhetorical target of Dilke's "disposable time." Frankly, I prefer "socially available time" to "disposable time" but I am talking about words people used historically and their reception and transmission.