On Surplus, Part II: What is Wealth?

July 12, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Read Part 1

Great Expectations

I want to start with a couple of images.

In late autumn of 1620, the Europeans we now celebrate as the Pilgrims stumbled on to shore near what is now Provincetown Massachusetts after over two months at sea.  Were it not for the additional stumbling that led to fresh burial mounds festooned with maize, the settlers would likely have starved to death right there and then.  But a little grave-robbing is always justified under extreme conditions.  Bellies filled, and seeds gathered in an impressive act of foresight, the Pilgrims then proceeded to “Plymouth.” There they worked for a few months to build a half-dozen ramshackle European style cabins, ordered all the single men and women in the group to marry so they might bunk-up and save cabin space, and proceeded to hunker-down for the remainder of an unhappy winter.  By spring, when “friendly Indians” finally decided to make contact, half of these settlers were dead.  Weak in body but still strong in spirit, or so we are likely to assume, the survivors had somehow managed to secure a second European foothold along the East coast of North America.

Natives of the area were by then already acquainted with Europeans from decades of trading along the Eastern seaboard.  They were aware of the Europeans’ basic incompetence with a number of remedial life-skills, and with their awful stench.  The undignified manners of these pale and hairy people, as well their unpredictable temper, had been impressed on the native population, who must have been puzzled at their uncanny ability to nevertheless survive repeat-trips into a netherworld beyond the horizon and back, or with their inexplicable competence at making copper pots, sailing ships, and muskets.

I imagine the wonder and amazement, touched perhaps with a bit of compassion, as the locals looked on in horrified curiosity as this maladapted settlement of smelly, hairy, human-like beasts attempted to survive a winter with almost no food or provisions—and of their disbelief that they would rather attempt another go-around than return to the land of copper pots and explosive weaponry.  The God’s, indeed, must be crazy.  As Charles Mann has suggested, the reason that this group was permitted to stay–in violation of a newly-formed practice of the various East-coast tribal confederates of sending Europeans on their way after the trading was done–had to do mainly with local inter-tribal politics. After wave upon wave of these stealing, lying, and cheating people continued use of the Pilgrims’ initial foothold to stumble across the beaches and into the woods so that they might extend their cluster of strange and ill-adapted houses, allowing them stay was probably seen as a mistake. Everyone would have been far better-off if this sick and emaciated band of the half-living were pushed back into the sea from whence they came.[i]

History hardly has time to blink and it is 1900.  The whole continent has been swept-free of its natives along great trails of tears, leaving only small groups living in “reservations,” often far from their native hunting grounds, barely more healthy than the first settlers must have appeared when they staggered into the spring sun after their long winter of misery and death.   America, by now, is settled by white people from coast to coast, and is entirely ruled by their laws.  Wars have been fought, the buffalo is gone, and a canal is to be dug across the American isthmus so that, what?–that the same show might go on, only at a more frantic and restless pace?  My home, Milwaukee, is one of the new nation’s great industrial centers, where the wondrous successor technologies of copper pots and misfiring muskets are  produced with great noise, smell, and fury.  Milwaukee was, by then, was sometimes to be referred to as “the machine shop to the world,” where the precise tools of the global industrial machine were crafted.

Where I more specifically have my home, now the adjacent suburb of Shorewood, is still mainly unsettled in 1900, but its population of three-hundred votes, then, to split off from Milwaukee, calling itself East Milwaukee.  By 1924, when our strangely small 800 square foot Dutch Colonial was built, Shorewood had received its current name and many of its current houses.  These, mainly larger and far more luxurious than ours, were the destination of a growing owner and managerial class from Milwaukee’s many tool and die makers, fabricators, and other industrialists, in addition to the upper echelons managers from some of its larger corporations who are looking to move out of the noisier and smellier confines of the city.

For as part of Shorewood’s 1917 charter, when it received its current, more pastoral name, is the promise of a “place to live and relax, free from any reminders of agriculture and industry.”.  Shorewood was a wealthy place, and, like today, it doesn’t want to think about where its wealth came from.  It is a place where one goes to forget.   Then, its residents were hiding from the noise and disruption, and the babble of foreign voices from the factories floor.  Now, perhaps under the guise of “good schools,” even the most “progressive” among us are here are keeping Milwaukee’s racial divide at arm’s length, perhaps imagining that we live in some sort of creative global knowledge economy where anyone can become a tech wizard or an internet entrepreneur.  Shorewood is effortlessly wealthy–wealthy without pretension.  From the larger mansions directly on the lake, it is true, one might witness the crisp and punctual early-morning emergence of shimmering BMW SUVs and polished exotic sports car, heading off to some private parking lot somewhere near downtown.  But my Shorewood is more a haven for computer programmers and other “tech” people living in some permanent “casual Friday” fantasy, the home of middle-management on its way up, dignified professors, liberal doctors and lawyers, all living in what TV or the movies portray as very normal and modest American lives.  Of course we don’t want to be reminded of where our wealth comes from.  We are embarrassed even to be called wealthy; that this is one of the most “liberal” communities in all of Wisconsin is a far more appealing justification for our way of life.

And just as our garbage cans, toddler toys, and lawn care implements are, according to well-enforced village codes, kept neatly out of sight, so also does Shorewood still aspire in its mainly unwritten social codes to be free from all reminders of industry and agriculture.  Global capitalism is a brutal and ugly business, unless you stick closely to its glittering packaging and carefully penned copy.  No one wants to be reminded of it these days–even while at work, where offices are now modeled after a high-end coffee shop; nor do its higher-achievers want to gaze from front porch or patio towards the service economy that stands ready and waiting to help, but preferably just out of view.

Enough people like me and my wife have managed to sneak in (and we are reproducing!)—by this I mean the sort of people who may have had a nerve touched by the description of disappointment and decline that I offered in Part 1.  There are, after all, apartment buildings and duplexes in Shorewood, and one can never control all the variables there.  Most of this lumpen-bourgeoisie fringe is able to keep up appearances well enough to blend in without too much notice, our quiet desperation hidden behind taupe vinyl siding and within second hand shabby-chic clothing.  The middle-class in America is a strange designation: while more than half of all Americans consider themselves middle-class, the life they aspire to is preserved for a far more exclusive top 20% or so. That of course leaves a tremendous rank of our citizenry living in a way far beneath what it believes itself entitled to.   Shorewood is a haven for the 20%, but with just enough of us high expectation aspirants mixed in to keep things interesting.

Where Did All the Money Go?

One of the comforting upshots of the response to Part 1 of this series, “On Surplus” was to hear how many others feel in some general way or another as I do.  No one likes truly to be alone.  For most of us, the actual feelings of failure are only periodic or episodic; but a sense of not living up to our dreams or expectations still plays a substantial role in the happiness and wellbeing of many Americans in the generations following the baby-boomers.  One particularly thoughtful comment came from my friend and colleague at Transition Milwaukee, Jessica Cohodes, who noted that, while millennials still live in their parents’ basement with more or less self-acceptance, our generation straddles the gap between millennials and their parents.  Because I am in the midst of a home renovation and addition project, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d rather live in my parents’ basement than work myself to death trying to build my own version of it for my kids.  I’d rather be contentedly curled up in front of my laptop, sometimes, than be above ground on a tightrope between two incommensurable worlds.

While the emotions I discussed in Part 1 are difficult in their own way, and involve some dedicated life-work to process, this installment will demand a different sort of difficult work for those not already familiar with the discourse surrounding the limits to growth or peak oil—namely conceptual work.  I will contrast a new set of concepts to the ones we are familiar with—namely the standard set of concepts and assumptions that we in the industrialized West use to explain wealth and poverty.  We use the same concepts and assumptions to predict the future, as well as control it with policies or investments.  While these familiar concepts are complex in their own way, our knowledge of them has seeped into our consciousness over years and years, with little effort.  Like compound interest (or lead from our drinking water), our assumptions about wealth and abundance accrue gradually and without much work.

The luxury of slow accrual is not available, here.  For in a relatively short space, I’m going to argue that these–let’s call them “mainstream concepts”–are mainly mistaken, and, at the same time, introduce a better, alternative set, that will explain where we are today and where we might go tomorrow.  In thirty years these new concepts will, I think, have seeped into general consciousness, but for now this sort of conceptual change involves some focus and work.

If our general question is What is Wealth and Where Did it Go?  We might approach the conceptual change I’m discussing in two steps.  First is the general question we ask when we are feeling like it is harder get by these days or when we are feeling that many of our childhood dreams have become impossible to obtain; second is the more specific terms we use to ask and answer these questions.  The most common way of addressing this frame of mind today is to ask, “Where has all the money gone?”  And this is a perfectly expected sort of question that a young auto-worker might ask when he or she enter the assembly line, today, with less than half the pay that senior workers enjoy; or that young university professors might ask when it is announced that they have to teach an extra class for the same pay, or when they realize mid-semester that they covering the cost of their own photocopying out of pocket.  This isn’t how things used to be.  “Why the change?  Where has all the money gone?”  But this, it turns out, is the wrong question.

Before I suggest an alternative question that we might instead ask, and propose an alternative set of terms we might use to ask it, I’d like to first note that that our contemporary political debate is, if you think about it, largely focused on the question, “where did all the money go?”  That, after all, is what Donald Trump is getting at when he promises “to make America Great Again,” or what Bernie Sanders is referring to with his talk of a “rigged economy” (which it may, nevertheless, be) that is directing increasing wealth towards the already rich.  Both sides ask the same question, but each gets a very different answer and, importantly, an answer that makes discussion and compromise all the more difficult.  Republicans and conservatives, for their part, tend to argue that all our riches have been taxed away and put into wasteful government programs.  Liberals, in contrast, argue that instead of investing our money in useful things (like education, research, and infrastructure), so that we might enjoy a profitable return, it has been put in the hands of an economic elite–one who lives in shameful luxury while risking the national treasure on foolish investment schemes (that we, the 20%, are part of this economic elite, is not generally considered).

But this description of the divide refers to our current politics as its best.  For the relatively civil question: “where did all the money go?” all too easily becomes the more irascible: “who took my money?”  Then we are off to the races, whether your answer is welfare mothers and Mexican immigrants, or Wall Street Bankers and Washington insiders.

American politics, in other words, feeds on the resentment and confusion caused by the sense that our previous, and normal, level of wealth has disappeared—that money we are entitled to as hard working Americans who are playing by the rules is now in someone else’s pocket.  With ever-increasing threat to our Republic, our politics preys upon a belief that has come to be considered almost a law of nature: that each generation should be wealthier and have more opportunity than the previous one.  Only a great heist or near complete lapse in public morals of the most terrible kind, the reasoning goes, could tip the earth from its axis of permanent progress.

One of the many advantages to the new way of seeing that I will be presenting is that it might just get us beyond contemporary political gridlock.  I am often struck by the way our political gridlock is blamed on the “other” side.  “If only they would see how ridiculous their beliefs are, we could all move forward according to sensible policies.”  Rare are the moments when anyone stops to consider that our gridlock may be caused by a more simply explained problem—that neither side has a useful answer, nor is their one lying ready in the middle ground lying between them.  Both sides remain equally confident, nonetheless, that their shared question is the right one—some version of, “where did all the money go?”  Neither side is stupid.  But both sides do lack the political imagination to get beyond the historical crossroads we passed miles ago—and perhaps for the simple reason that this crossroad marked the end of the two sides as they have been defined against each other for the past century.  Keeping the show going, apparently, has been more important than reflecting upon our changing times.  A large part of my purpose is to close this show down.

This fixation on liberal vs. conservative, however, may change as more people are in fact articulating their feelings of loss and disappointment in mature and reflective ways.  Though so, too, are more people ready to become armed and dangerous, as disappointment turns to resentment, and resentment to hate.

The Right Question

But what if we ask this question instead: “Where did all the money come from in the first place?”  What paid for all those opportunities and growing luxuries that seemed to fall into our parents’ laps, but not ours?  Not, then: “Why do new autoworkers only make $15/hour?”;  but: “What permitted their predecessors to make so much more (adjusted for inflation) in 1970?  Not: “Why do I have to teach three classes every semester?”  But: What stroke of magic, good luck, or unexpected windfall made it possible for a $70,000 a year professor to be assigned, for a time, only two classes per semester? Who paid for this, and why?  Asking such questions is not to say that I believe in a simple way that the past privileges enjoyed by the generations preceding mine were necessarily ill-begotten.  But it is to remind us that there is no law of nature saying that a 2/2 teaching load is an inherent promise of an evolving humanity.   In any case of current or former prosperity, nonetheless, the money to pay for it came from somewhere.   And now, for many ordinary white people in Europe and America, it doesn’t appear to be “there” anymore.  This “somewhere” was, and mainly remains, invisible and forgotten–and invisible or forgotten origins have a tendency to make a state of affairs seem natural or inevitable.  But if we look closely at where the great wealth that my parents’ generation had (and still maintains) came from in the first place, only then might we get a good sense where it may have “gone” and whether we should expect to repeat past achievements.

Changing the question from “where did all the money go?,” to “where did it come from  in the first place?,” is an improvement, to be sure.  But we’re still not all the way there.  To push us further, I’m going to make a suggestion that may be initially difficult to comprehend, for I’m going to propose that we stop talking about wealth in terms of money; to talk about wealth and its disappearance in terms of money, I will later show, is misleading.  Money is not the same thing as wealth and the very concept of money creates a fog that obscures a much longer and clearer view of history.  As long as we talk about the wealth of nations in terms of how much money there is to pay workers, to finance infrastructure, service debt, spend on vacations, mortgages, and new cars, or to invest in the future, we will be stuck with the sort of answers we see coming out of American politics today—“who took my money?”

What other way is there to discuss such things except in terms of money?  This is where we get to the title of my series, for I propose that we talk about the wealth of nations, and also intergenerational change and disappointments, as well as all the other things we tend to think about in monetary terms, with another word—namely, surplus.  To answer the question of Part II’s specific title, wealth is surplus.

The Long View of Things

So let’s talk about surplus.  As a sort of heads up, note that it may not be immediately apparent what advantage is gained by talking about surplus instead of money, as the term money might be substituted back into many of my examples without much obvious effect; though with some careful reflection the difference may begin to take shape.  The advantage gained by a change in terms will truly reveal itself when we start re-posing questions about change and ask “where did all the surplus come from and where did it all go?”  This will be the main subject of our third installment, so we’re going to have to wait a little while to see the full value of the concept of surplus while we explore it here in a more preliminary way and according to a “long view” of history. [ii]   One main advantage of using the concept of surplus (rather than money) that does become visible right up front, however, is that it allows us a broader historical range:  using the concept of surplus allows us to compare the modern condition to ancient ones.  It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to say that the Mayan empire collapsed because its central government didn’t have enough money.  The Mayans did not have a financial crisis and a boatload of cash would not have helped them with their soil fertility problems; nor would we say that the inhabitants of the Easter Islands spent too much of their money on elaborate statues.  But both civilizations did, however, have a crisis of declining surplus.  The same sort of crisis of declining surplus, many will be surprised to learn, is occurring in the industrialized world today, even as we are unable to see this clearly through the cloud of money we are throwing at it with so much vitriol and fanfare.

So what is surplus?  One of the main lessons of Anthropology 101 is that societies become wealthy, and then complex (and ultimately modern), only when they learn how to amass and store large amounts of food, and eventually other things.  This usually involves the storage of grain.  The grain that was stored, in turn, was always a surplus–not needed, in other words, for immediate, day to day, survival.   Once a group of people had stored and saved food at-the-ready, everything changes.

In a pre-agricultural society, in contrast to the ones we call “advanced”—namely, hunting and gathering societies—obtaining food was a daily challenge that required the successful effort of almost every one of society’s members.  Sure, some days the hunt may have gone well and rest may have begun earlier, while on other days the best hunters may have toiled late into the evening.  But quick and successful hunts did not generally result in wealth as we understand it, but more likely a few extra hours of leisure.   For wealth involves the accumulation of a surplus.  There were relatively few ways to store food before the transition to a grain-based diet; storage was something impractical, moreover, for nomadic hunters and gatherers.  Wealth would have been considered a burden, which, perhaps, it is.  Without surpluses, nonetheless, there was little opportunity for personal ambition or social stratification into elites and non-elites, for ambition and stratification require the ability to distribute (or not) stored wealth.  Or as Joseph Tainter explains, “the route to an elevated social position is to acquire a surplus of subsistence resources, and to distribute these in such a way that one establishes prestige in the community, and creates a following and faction.”[iii]

The historical record supports this explanation.  Prior to the development of complex societies with accumulated surplus a mere ten thousand years ago, human cultures were generally egalitarian and internally homogeneous.  Everyone lived in a pretty uniform way; there were no classes or castes, no rich and no poor; no lawyers, house cleaners, professors, minimum wage workers, or regional supply managers; nor was there a fashion industry designed to help us identify ourselves as rich or poor, traditional or irreverent, liberal or conservative, prudish or adventurous.  There were no Democrats and no Republicans arguing whether society should share more or less of its surplus across its social stratifications and amongst its various occupations, nor debating whether we needed to “move forward” towards increased social heterogeneity, or instead “look back” and honor some our previous forms of stratification as a necessary incentive.

This contrast between a low-surplus egalitarian society and a hierarchical high-surplus one can often be made only by studying a single civilization evolving across history, or at least by viewing two very different time-periods.  However, and quite recently, two “eras” of human development crossed paths on a mass scale on our own continent of North America, and with the awful results I hinted at above.  Although earlier inhabitants of what we now call “New England” combined agriculture with hunting and gathering, they were not interested in amassing surplus.  The whole European experiment in North America, starting with our humble Pilgrims, in contrast, has been an exercise in cornering an increasing percentage of the whole world’s surplus.

Diana Muir nicely describes the difference in Reflections on Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England.  On the one hand, she explains, “here was a people who hunted, or picked, or raised everything they needed.  Indians lived secure in the knowledge that so long as rivers flowed to the sea and trees grew in the forests, they and their children would have warm lodges to live in, warm skins to wrap themselves against the cold, and plenty to eat.  Accumulating more coats than a family could wear or more pots than were needed for cooking was worse than pointless: it was burdensome.”  In contrast to this simple[iv] and highly-adapted ecology-based economy, on the other hand, were the white settlers coming ashore in increasing numbers, bringing with them ship after ship full of stuff: “Englishmen viewed the world in a quite a different light.  Against life’s vicissitudes, with the ever pressing need to provide for one’s children, the constant striving for social position, the always threatening possibilities of financial loss, a bad harvest, or an investment gone sour, one could never pile up too many goods.  Wealth was the shining prospect that beckoned every man forward; sufficiency, a thing no Englishman could attain.”[v]  Even though one can draw a pretty straight line from these white settlers to Walmart, or the 2008 financial collapse, or the life-threatening emission of greenhouse gasses, it is widely believed that theirs was the superior way of life.

This, of course, is not to say that starving white settlers had an easy go of it, nor that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture automatically ensured societal or individual wealth—an imperial and colonial mindset, however, certainly helped things along, as would the regular appearance of  sailing  ships from over the horizon.  But, especially with its focus on the production of dried grains, agriculture did make wealth possible for a simple reason: now surplus could be stored, and from here a whole chain of causal accumulation might be anchored.  If your relatives back in Europe were hunters and gatherers, you could pretty much know in advance that they will not have much to send you.  When environmental or technological conditions were favorable and a people were able to grow more food than they needed, all sorts of new options are suddenly available.  With increased agricultural productivity, the food and fiber required for subsistence might, in effect, be grown in half a day.  Starting around noon, the remaining half-day everyone had stretched out in front of them could be devoted to the production of storable or tradable food, or to devising better ploughing techniques, or selecting hardier cultivars, or building better ships and sending supplies to your more adventurous kinfolk.  Or the surplus time could be devoted to art, song, astronomy and mathematics, or even hours frittered away playing Grand Theft Auto or writing a blog with a readership of a few dozen.

This is a nice image of an egalitarian division of labor and leisure split equally across a society so that everyone may work only half a day in pursuit of necessities and spend the other half pursuing leisure, study, or ambition.  It probably only existed in Marx’s vision of communist society, in which, as he dreamily put it, I might “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic” (The German Ideology 160).  Needless to say, though Marx says it anyways, such a paradise of self-actualization requires “an existing world of wealth and culture,” which, in turn, “presupposes a great increase in productive power” (161).  This fantasy is not the stuff of a subsistence culture, which may nevertheless provide some bucolic images for Marx’s model, but certainly not the optional nature of it, which only existed in Marx’s pliant mind.  Historically, as Marx is well aware, with the rise of surpluses most people ended up working all day (and in many cases far more hours than their ancestors) in order to provide enough surplus so that another section of society might be free to spend their entire day on astronomy, with their concubines, managing grain production and distribution, breaking away from the Church of England, or coming up with fanciful stories that would keep the workers willingly at work.

Without these workers and their “surplus labor,” moreover, we would not have seen the rise of the modern university nor academic institutions like sabbatical, which is designed to give the over-worked professoriate an opportunity to periodically refresh mind, spirit, and curriculum vitae.  Regardless whether the university kicks out more surplus downstream than it takes in at the headwaters, the university and its legions of workers mainly detached from everything having to do with immediate subsistence or basic necessities are a great and wonderful expression of a high-surplus society, which can pay people simply to think and sometimes think mainly about thinking.  A light teaching load and plenty of extra funding is the expression of a university with a good deal of internal surplus (so that not those with obscure subjects may have an enrollment of 4 and still go on, just because this class should be taught), which in turn is probably the expression of a society with a growing surplus that it is not fully sure how to allocate.  Higher teaching loads, an emphasis on high enrollments, and a decrease in funding, as administrators understand, is indicative of a university with decreasing surplus.  I would argue, moreover, that the declining intra-university is, in turn, a symptom of a society with a surplus in decline, less sure if it wants to pay people to think about thinking or think out loud in front of an audience of a half-dozen.

In any event, the university and many of our most vaunted civil and aesthetic institutions are possible only if their direct beneficiaries are not needed to grow food, chop down trees, or build basic shelter.  What we proudly think of as advanced industrial societies are ones in which a decreasing percentage of the population is responsible for procuring the food and energy required by the rest of society.  In wealthy industrial societies, as few as 2% of the population may be employed in the “agriculture sector”; in colonial America, in contrast, around 90% of employment was agricultural labor.  Meanwhile in “undeveloped nations”—ones with a far lower surplus at their disposal—may find upwards of 60% of all worker on the farm or in the fields today.

Image Removed

When an extreme few can produce enough surplus so that their whole society can enjoy a degree of security against hunger and destitution, there is no telling what wonders and terrors the remainder of society might be able to produce.  Such a society, we might imagine, could even save its brave Pilgrims with a fully televised helicopter rescue the moment their pangs of hunger begin in earnest, while professors of semiotics look on and offer a searing critique of the whole fandango.[vi]  It takes a lot of surplus, at any rate, to devote a substantial sector of society to waiting around in a comfortable hangar in case anyone runs amuck in some or another self-imposed adventure.

We are at the point, now, where we can replace the usual definition of wealth as having lots of money, with a definition based on surplus.  A wealthy society is one with a large surplus at its disposal, and the larger the surplus the wealthier the society.  Societal wealth always begins with efficient or super-abundant agriculture, as archaeologist Betty Meggers pointed out long ago. [vii]   A similar definition could be applied to individuals or families as well.  A wealthy person is one who has a lot left over after basic requirements for living have been squared away.   Wealth, then, refers to all the goods, services, knowledge, social practices, and refinement that a society or a person is able to amass or consume after basic necessities have been met.  The objects of wealth, themselves, are also surplus objects in that they are not necessary, whether we are talking about elaborate burial rites, separate bedrooms for each family member, a special suit of clothes set aside for special occasions, regular access to entertainment, a new BMW matching all the other ones in your law firm’s parking lot, or even a safety and security industry devoted to saving members of society not necessary for its ongoing survival as a whole.

Vacations and retirement, both of which are assumed in our society to be a sort of basic human right, are two of the more interesting examples of surplus.  Vacations, for their part, require an entire “tourism industry,” which doesn’t actually produce anything, but rather helps collect and redistribute a society’s surplus.[viii]   But even more basic than the existence of a tourism industry is this: the ability to take time away from work implies that your work is productive enough to support your needs for the time you spend away from it.  We take this for granted, but as for any hunters and gatherers, most nineteenth-century farmers could scarcely afford to go a week without working (even as their work helps support a nascent “leisure class”).  Of course the same goes for a larger underclass of contemporary Americans than most of us are likely to keep in mind.  On the farm there was always too much to do, and for workers working pay-check to pay-check, today, the ability to stay a half-step ahead of rent, grocery costs, and car payments is all that most can manage.  The underclass might be described as the people with whom, for whatever reason, the rest of society refuses to share much of its overall surplus.  In a situation of declining societal surplus, these voiceless many will fare the worst, while increasing numbers will join their ranks.  Decreasing equality is almost always a symptom of decreasing levels of overall surplus, a basic fact that Liberal economists like Paul Krugman cannot seem to fathom.

Retirement–an extended multi-year vacation if you think about it–is even a more pronounced expression of surplus.  Looked at without its assumptions of normalcy in our (still) high-surplus society, retirement is an astonishing feat: to be able to stop working and yet still have enough stored grain (so to speak), or the means to buy it from others, for five, ten, now even twenty or thirty years, requires a substantial amount of surplus production during working years.  Those who enjoy long and comfortable retirements are able to live, and often live lavishly, by setting aside perhaps as much as half of what they “produced” while working.   Again, the idea of a hunter-gatherer, or even a farmer prior to the last century or so, being able to simply stop pursuing game or producing food for a decade or more would have been inconceivable, even as the extended family structure may have compensated for the slowing production of older members of society.

Surplus Morality

The existence of a large societal surplus also creates a new set of values, as well as life goals.  The difficulties I wrote of in Part 1 referred, when it comes down to it, merely to the adjustments one has to make as society goes from one of increasing surpluses to ever-so slightly decreasing ones.[ix]  The constant creation of “more” is the opiate of Liberal societies.  Something similar to the previous transition from frontier subsistence farming nation to our leisure society is occurring, now in reverse, in contemporary society.  My parents had to work fewer hours than I to gain access to more.  The nation’s surplus was, at that time achieved more easily and required less work than it does today, and this surplus was consequently doled out more freely to Americans as part of some “great society.”[x] For my grain elevators to be as full as my parents’ would require an inconceivable amount of work at my current rate of production.  It seems that they must have had hundreds of slaves to create so much long-term stored bounty.  I’m lucky if I have a few weeks’ extra supply, while they could keep an entire village from hunger for years.  Where did all this surplus come from?

This question, and Why this change is occurring now will be the subject of the next installment.  Here, we might note that in our society there are a wide and rarely questioned set of social norms, a sense of fashion, even a moral code surrounding the appearance and manifestation of surplus.  Simple things, like the suntan as a fashion statement has been a way of saying “I don’t have work all the time,” while what we used to call “a farmer’s tan,” the sort of markings a sensible person who was hard at work with a shirt on might receive from the sun, was an object of scorn.[xi]  Indeed most modern social and aesthetic norms are meant to mark someone’s relative freedom from labor and access to surplus.  The manicured lawn is another such statement with distinct moral overtones: I don’t have to grow food; I can control nature; I have time or money enough to hunt down lone dandelions.

These moral overtones are made more explicitly visible if you contrast the row after row of thoughtful and creative landscaping in my village of Shorewood with the look of a poor semi-rural neighborhood, perhaps in Appalachia (as our stereotypes might have it) that might be strewn with washing machines, rusty trucks, and piles of defunct machinery.  Are these people just ill-kempt or lazy?  Are they lacking all sense of decorum or aesthetics? Have they no self-respect?  Such questions, implicit in our judgments about us and them, make sense only from within dialect of high-surplus.  A more general vocabulary sees the differences between a low and high surplus community.  As the owner of the junkiest house in Shorewood, I can say with some first-hand knowledge that waste disposal costs money and clean-up takes time; after a back-breaking day of physical labor, neither moving that old tractor nor landscaping the lawn has as much appeal as a cold Budweiser.  If, on the other hand, you sit at a desk all day managing complexity, and come home from work at 4:00, garden work might provide a nice and simple transition to the evening pleasures of a good meal and a nice glass of wine.  And if your high-powered job has too many demands, there is always the lawn service (peopled by an invisible set of ultra-low-surplus workers whose lawns might resemble mine).  Both the time to do it yourself or have someone do it are of course signs of a surplus, while the junky front yard may a symptom of having little time or money left-over after first order necessities have been managed and paid for.

It is no wonder, then, that my own urban homestead, and others like it, cause an occasional stir.  And to be fair, I should note that part of the controversy surrounding our “landscaping” may have to do not only with the relatively minor disarray I bring into the neighborhood, but with my focus on growing food in front and back yards.  Our front yard, a gently terraced hill, is given over to a large strawberry patch, two apple trees, and two pear trees.  The area just in front of the house normally reserved for decorative shrubs is used for tomatoes, kale, carrots, and green beans.  I’ve been meaning to build a stone retaining on our side of the neighbor’s driveway, but who has $500 for a load of rocks?  We’ll have to put up with some slow erosion until then.  At one point some of my neighbors may have been pleased to see the arrival of some large decorative boulders (salvaged from some excavation work)—the start, perhaps, of some serious hardscaping.  But these have instead been scattered on the hill to create warm microclimates with their solar mass for my crop of squash and pumpkin, which are allowed to spread across the grassy/weedy areas from their warm compost-filled holes and mounds.

Urban agriculture has, since we helped introduce it here some eight or so years ago, become nearly as hip as the Starbucks coffee grounds made conspicuously available for our compost piles.  But no one has yet to prettify a rusting pickup truck with only one operable door.  Though one rarely thinks consciously of it like this, I believe it goads people mainly because it is a reminder of the world that is supposed to halt at Milwaukee’s city limits (though some neighborhoods to our south would certainly be as inhospitable as my Shorewood one)—a reminder of agriculture and industry, and, in short, of where surplus comes from (and who has the most of it).  Shorewood trades in clean and discrete monetary transactions, and ones with more zeros than average or than the world can sustain. From this tidy and well-kept perspective, there is little incentive to think much about where the money really comes from, other than the standard “good job,” “hard work,” “smart investment,” upon which a good liberal might maintain some nice bourgeois pride.

As evidence, consider the way I have arrived at work at least four times only to be greeted by a message on my company answering machine (the number taken off my truck door) complaining that my truck was parked in front of their house, usually just around the corner from ours (and only when someone has a party or celebration and the street parking right in front of us fills up).   The emphasis, regardless of the complainer, has always been that it is a “commercial truck.”  This was true even ten years ago, when it was new-looking and rust-free.  Currently (indignity upon indignity), I have two giant sixty-gallon tanks of spray foam insulation and two nitrogen tanks of pressurizer standing upright in the bed of my truck.  Even I have to admit that it all looks ungainly out of place, even when partially shielded behind the front yard sprawl of pumpkin and squash, the overgrown strawberry patch, and scattered edible weeds like lambsquarters run wild.  Spray foam insulation may be a centerpiece of the “green economy” that is furiously, if somewhat desperately, promoted in places like this.  But chemical tanks just plain look ugly.   No one wants to see these, any more than an oil storage depot, as part of their immediate landscape.  This is more than some of my neighbors can take: the timing with which I have become the object of at least one neighbor’s silent fury is a bit too exact to be a matter of coincidence.

Image Removed

It occurred to me, as I was trying to wrap this installment up, that I have a strange sort of reverse identification with the Pilgrims.  They were trying to begin a higher-surplus life amidst the wildness of a sprawling continent for which, at the time, they were entirely unsuited.  They would have been far better-off with fewer copper pots and more foraging skill.  They and their descendants turned the wilderness into surplus so that they would not have to adapt.  Similarly, but also in contrast, my wife and I are trying (with more or less consciousness) to maintain a low-surplus life amidst a high-surplus community.  There are times in which we seem as ill-adapted to our local ecology as the Pilgrims were to theirs.  They nearly killed themselves off trying to build silly wood-frame houses during their first winter, when a hand-woven hut would have done much better; we live in a silly wood-frame house (which I am  killing myself trying to enlarge) when all we can really afford is a hand-woven hut.  This is grossly hyperbolic, to be sure, but there is a sense in which my time spent picking squash-borer eggs off my pumpkin plants would be far better spent making “real” money—in ways with both practical and symbolic consequences.  Having the highest soil fertility on the block does not pay the village taxes, for it does not create surplus—and surplus, not sufficiency, is clearly the local currency.

As part of my reverse-identification with the Pilgrims, then, here’s a final image.  Just as they emerged stumbling from the ocean, I imagine the original (pre 2006) Shorewood population pushing me and my kind into Lake Michigan as a sort of reverse reenactment of the all-American Thanksgiving tale of the friendly and helpful natives.  This, of course, is what Native Americans should have done to the Pilgrims before they destroyed everyone’s peace and tranquility, as well as the pleasing sight-lines of the local landscape. Perhaps I’ll suggest this dramatic (re)enactment for our annual neighborhood Thanksgiving pageant. [xii] I might also mention that as the economic world tips further off its previous axis, there may be a more general landslide in this direction.  Before any of this happens, though, I hope to share some thoughts on where our surplus came from in the first place, and why it is slowly disappearing.  To this task I turn in Part III.

Read Part 3

[i] See Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[ii] In the meantime, we might begin by noting that modern economics has proceeded without much consideration of surplus, even though high surplus is one of the most significant conditions of the modern era that modern economics has attempted to explain.  The same is true of our politics and well nearly all our primary cultural assumptions, including what it means to live a good, happy, or moral life.  Adam Smith, it is true, did argue that the wealth of nations has little to do with how much gold was held in the royal coffers.  Instead, he suggested, wealth had to do with how much in the way of goods and services a nation could produce.  Though he doesn’t discuss this issue explicitly, he is in a sense suggesting we talk about surplus rather than money.  But after Smith “solved” the basic problem of wealth, a high and growing level of surplus is assumed in subsequent political and economic discourse, to the point that no one feels too compelled to talk much about the general conditions making a high level of surplus possible (this being the starting point), focusing instead on tweaking the system or bettering our predictive abilities.  Or to put it in reverse, modern technology, we assume, has solved the problem of scarcity—as experienced, for instance, by the Pilgrims, who today would enjoy a televised helicopter rescue.

Marx presents a rather interesting semi-alternative to the assumption of permanent and invisible surplus.  Marx found great perspective by standing on the shoulders of Smith and Ricardo, but was, in so doing, handed a great number of their assumptions, especially the belief that we might permanently expect high aggregate surplus.   Marx, unlike his “bourgeois” counterparts was not willing to permit this surplus to be invisible.  He was very concerned with the “surplus labor” of the worker, and thus thought a great deal about value and its distribution in general.  Surplus labor was the amount of value (goods and services) workers created beyond that necessary to sustain themselves.  Marx’s point, of course, is that the worker was not permitted by the rules of capitalism to keep much, if any, of this surplus—only enough to “reproduce himself,” as Marx would put it.  Owners, in other words, would pay the bare minimum necessary to make sure there would be living and breathing workers the next day.    The surplus created by the worker was, instead, used to make the capitalist wealthy and provide for him his luxury and finery.

Marx naturally wanted to redistribute our social surpluses in ways, we need to admit, that have been partially accomplished by liberal society, especially during its mid twentieth-century peak.  But like the most doctrinaire capitalist, Marx never waivers from the assumption that we might take for granted an extremely high level of surplus in modern society and that this level of surplus might be permanent.  At heart, he was a progressive, and believed that humanity had solved the problem of scarcity once and for all by way of a few eternal technical leaps.  The common belief that poverty is indicative of a heist (and only a heist), or at least a rigged economy, owes much to Marx, one of the great theorists of modernity operating from its inside.

But as I have mentioned a few times, one of the characteristics that makes modern society “modern” is the assumption of high surplus and, importantly, an inability to doubt its permanence.  In order to gain perspective on this feature of the present, and thus think about surplus in a more basic way, we need to get beyond modern economics and its handmaidens, and turn to archaeology and anthropology.  Here, the rise of the surplus society that most everyone considers permanent and beyond question is a major point of discussion. As an aside, let me say that I am grateful to my high-modernist education, for I am able to clearly see its flaws up close and personally; but if I were to do it again, I would study anthropology for the sake of its long view of history, where we are able to consider the rise of civilization, per se, and imagine its possible fall

[iii] Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p.25

[iv] In the sense of simplicity and complexity used by  Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies—namely homogenous lifestyles and occupations in a non-stratified fairly egalitarian society.

[v] Muir, Diana.  Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (Lebanon NH: The University Press of New England, 2000), p. 32.

[vi] Of course to be realistic about it, we have to admit that any such Pilgrims would be characters in some reality TV show with some contractual clause about mandated conditions of rescue.

[vii] “The level to which a culture can develop is dependent on the agricultural potentiality of the environment it occupies.” Quoted in Mann, p. 332.

[viii] The very notion of a “global service economy” is silly at best; without having the language to describe it, it imagines even more expansion in surplus to the point where almost no one is required to produce necessities and everyone else is free to service each other.

[ix] Which is why we need not only to buck-up, but pay attention too, so that we might prepare ourselves for a steeper decline.

[x] Of course it is not as simple as this and there is no easy algorithm by which we can make comparisons.  We have less than my parents, even though I can perhaps put more computing power in my pocket than my father’s first university had at its entire disposal.  Our expectations have changed, and we have more digital information, more crappy stuff from Target that will last only a year than my parents ever might have had.  Yet they were able to save enough of their surplus to have all this plus their memories of more simple times in which a new black and white TV receiving four channels was a great technological leap.

[xi] Before the modern outdoor leisure culture, a suntan of any sort was a sign, in contrast, of having to work and was something people tried to avoid.  The social statement that a suntan makes might be attributed to the decline of agricultural labor and the rise of indoor labor, such that a low-surplus person who worked a lot was likely working inside and thus was pale.  The rich kids, in other words, were able to hang out on the beach all summer, while those of lesser means might take a summer job in a factory or office.

[xii] In all honesty, I have taken some dramatic liberties with my descriptions, here.  A great many of my Shorewood neighbors are lovely people, and a great number of my low-brow friends do just fine in these environs.  However, though some of my descriptions may not fully represent the larger picture, none are fabricated and there is, at the very least, a serious undertow of surplus morality as I depict it here.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: catabolic collapse, liberalism, surplus