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By Slavoj Žižek
The automatization of production creates a challenge for humanity: what to do with those “left behind” by progress? And this superfluousness also has broader implications across society.
One unexpected topic has emerged from popular fiction in recent decades, from the lowest trash (Tim la Haye and his fellow travelers) to TV serials, like Leftovers, and it’s the subject of those “left behind.”
Typically, in this scenario, Armageddon is approaching, and God has brought the privileged ones to himself in order to save them from the forthcoming horrors. But what if we attempt a vulgar reading of the popular appeal of this topic, from an economist’s perspective?
As is often the case, it seems that God Himself has listened to the voice of capital, so that the topic of the leftovers should be related to our economic predicament in global capitalism. Is it not the case that only those who were unable to join the flow of refugees, and had to remain stuck in their homelands in disarray, are our “left behind”?
One should avoid any simplistic romanticization of the refugees. Some European leftists claim that refugees are a nomadic proletariat which can act as the core of a new revolutionary subject in Europe – a claim which is deeply problematic. The proletariat, for Marx, comprised of exploited workers disciplined through work and creating wealth, and while today the precariat can count as a new form of the proletariat, the paradox of refugees is that they are mostly in search of how to become the proletariat. They are “nothing,” with no place within the social edifice of the country where they took refuge, but from here it is a long step to the proletariat in the strict Marxian sense.
So instead of celebrating refugees as nomadic proletarians, would it not be more appropriate to claim that they are the more dynamic/ambitious part of their country’s population, those with a will to ascend, and that the true proletarians are rather those who remained there and were left behind as strangers in their own country (with all the religious connotations of “left behind”: leftovers, being those not taken to god by rapture). So, the tendency of global capitalism is to make 80% of us “left behind.”
A century ago, Vilfredo Pareto was the first to describe the so-called 80/20 rule of (not only) social life: 80% of land is owned by 20% of people, 80% of profits are produced by 20% of the employees, 80% of decisions are made during 20% of meeting time, 80% of the links on the Web point to less than 20% of Web-pages, 80% of peas are produced by 20% of the peapods and so on.
As some social analysts and economists have suggested, today’s explosion of economic productivity confronts us with the ultimate example of this rule: the emerging global economy tends towards a state in which only 20% of the workforce can do all the necessary jobs, so that 80% of the people are basically irrelevant and of no use and potentially unemployed.
When this logic reaches its extreme, would it not be reasonable to bring it to its self-negation? Is not the system which makes 80% of the people irrelevant and of no use, itself irrelevant and of no use? The problem is thus not primarily that a new global proletariat is emerging, but a more radical one: billions of people are simply not needed and all the sweatshops cannot absorb them.
Toni Negri once gave an interview, strolling along a suburban street in Italy’s Venice-Mestre, and the journalist’s camera caught him passing a line of workers picketing in front of a textile factory slated to be closed down; he pointed at the workers and dismissively remarked: “Look at them! They don’t know they are already dead!”
For Negri, these workers stood for all that is wrong about the traditional trade-unionist socialism, which focuses on corporate job security. A socialism mercilessly rendered obsolete by the dynamics of “postmodern” capitalism with its hegemony of intellectual labor.