Working-class people in the United States are now at a turning point–whether to compliantly return to the pre-Covid conditions capital set for them, or to shift toward a new militancy toward capitalism. Now, two years into the pandemic, they have suffered severe personal hardships due to Covid-related illness, hospitalizations and deaths, and sudden loss of employment. These traumas have occurred even as they have experienced an historically unprecedented hiatus of relative economic security, given the Covid-related payments and protections they received from the U.S. state, while many have been praised as “essential workers.” This essay seeks to review what has happened to them over the last four decades that has made this into such a turning point.
Anthropologists speak of the period since the 1970s as one of neoliberalism. Instead, in this essay I adopt a different perspective by exploring the conditions prevailing under the transition from the liberal nation-state to the corporate-oligarchic state that has occurred widely with the integration of platform-surveillance capitalism into state administration and the use of massive databases by corporations and governments to govern populations (Kapferer and Gold 2018). Freedom and enslavement in the contemporary United States are linked to two now converging phenomena. One is digitalization; the other is the expansion of expropriation as a mechanism of capital accumulation beyond its historically racially marked boundaries to encompass the racially dominant white population. These changes have taken place with the rise to domination of finance capitalism in the world economy, a new period of economic decline and social crisis in the West.
First, as to digitalization. It has not only led to unprecedented levels of economic inequality among the population, but also to new mechanisms of accumulation organized around the generalized dispossession of working-class people made possible by their indebtedness combined with corporate and state deployment of digital technologies with large-scale predictive capabilities. The rise of surveillance capitalism and its integration into the corporate state has taken the form of a massive, commercialized apparatus of surveillance–“a single behemoth of a data market; a colossal marketplace for personal data” (Harcourt 2015, 198).
The ascendance of finance capital has come to operate in tandem with a racialized corporate state formation using an apparatus of analog surveillance and control of working people combined with digital surveillance over them. This apparatus has come to rationally extract and then realize large volumes of surplus value from them outside the capitalist workplace. This apparatus employs digital technologies (i.e., artificial intelligence) to increase the hyper-exploitation and expropriation of racially vulnerable groups, but also extends to the racially dominant white population. I focus my attention on the United States because its relentless attachment to new forms of financialized repression of working people through capitalizing (on) their debt repayment and petty income streams leads the way for capitalist regimes in other “advanced industrialized” countries undergoing economic decline.
Second, connected to the dominance of finance capital since the 1970s there has been the generalization of mechanisms of expropriation beyond racially marked vulnerable groups to the broader majority/plurality white population. In an important article, Nancy Fraser (2016) argues that capitalism throughout its history has always been accompanied by the racialization of the populations governed by the states that support it, and that this has continued up to the present. She distinguishes the industrial exploitation of a Euro-descended or white population within the cores and peripheries of the European (British, French, etc.) and United States empires that has been set apart from the expropriation of people of color within the cores and peripheries of these empires. By expropriation Fraser means, “distinct from Marxian exploitation, expropriation is accumulation by other means. Dispensing with the contractual relation through which capital purchases ‘labor power’ in exchange for wages, expropriation works by confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into capital’s circuits of self-expansion” (Fraser 2016, 166). This is important: dispossession as such is only the loss of labor-power, reproductive capacity, land, money, or property by those dispossessed. Expropriation, however, goes beyond dispossession to confiscate these use-values and transform them into exchange-values incorporated into capital’s circuits of accumulation. Expropriation leads to accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2004: 74-75).
Fraser goes further to assert that as an historical regularity until quite recently capitalism has survived at times of economic crisis only because the expropriation of people of color accelerates the rate of capital accumulation beyond that possible through sustained exploitation of white workers within industrial production. “Expropriation… covers a multitude of sins, most of which correlate strongly with racial oppression… such as territorial conquest, land annexation, enslavement, coerced labor, child labor, child abduction, and rape” but also “assumes more ‘modern’ forms–such as prison labor, transnational sex trafficking, corporate land grabs, and foreclosures on predatory debt, which are also linked with racial oppression” (Fraser 2016, 167).
Although Fraser has captured an historical regularity of capitalism in the United States, she points out that expropriations by corporations and the U.S. state are increasingly imposed on the dominant racial group of whites as well as on racially subordinate groups. In her periodization of capitalism since the 17th century, she refers to the current period of “financialized capitalism” which she dates from the 1990s to the present as characterized by the emergence of “the expropriable-and-exploitable citizen-worker, formally free but acutely vulnerable” (Fraser 2016, 176). To be more accurate, they are also exploitable and expropriable when they own petty property (e.g., low-end real estate), or are not “legal” U.S. citizens (e.g., “non-documented” Latinx immigrants among hyper-sweated workers in the meat processing industry). This figure refers to working people who racially may be of color or may be white.
Fraser’s (2016, 176) argument that “expropriation has become ubiquitous, afflicting not only its traditional [racial] subjects but also those who were previously shielded by their status as citizen-workers” has much support. This can be identified in the events leading up to the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 when subprime mortgage lenders in 2000-2001 shifted their target demographic for peddling these mortgages away from African-American elderly couples and women toward “a white, blue-collar construction worker who drinks beer,’” in the words of Roland Arnall, the CEO of Ameriquest, one of the largest and most fraudulent subprime mortgage lenders (Hudson 2010, 148). Other subprime mortgage lenders followed suit. In consequence, 3.8 million families from 2007-2010 lost their homes due to foreclosures. Is the racialized class hierarchy within U.S. capitalism being reordered by redefining the white/non-white boundary? Are déclassé whites becoming less “white” or even “non-white”?
How do generalized expropriation and digitalization now combine to characterize capitalist society in the United States? Expropriation made more precise and discriminating in its objectives by artificial intelligence is often but not always centered on taking advantage of working people through indebtedness (from subprime mortgages, payday lending, student loans, etc.). It allows for the rationalized and sustained extraction of working peoples’ income streams, thus allowing such extraction to be scaled up and “securitized.” Under these conditions, expropriation enhanced by digitalization directed at working people has become a major mode of realizing (surplus) value from working people, outside the “normal” profit-making by corporations through consumer markets.
The New Digital Scores and the Corporations’/States’ Management of Life
Consider persons’ awareness in the U.S. of their FICO credit score when applying for a loan. Most soon learn of their FICO Score and its importance but they may not know of other less-regulated consumer scores that evaluate their potential to incur, manage and repay debt, and tap on their income streams for money–scores like “ChoiceScore,” “Risk IQ”, the geographically defined “Median Equivalency Score,” and the “Consumer View Profitability Score” (Dixon and Gelman 2014, 43-44). Similarly, persons in the U.S. may not know about many other aspects of their lives that are being quantified and analyzed through AI-based algorithms to create scores for them that predict and shape their lives.
These scores are commercially available to any corporate or state buyer that can afford to purchase them. They assess the individuals forming the U.S. population as debtors, potential job occupants, rent or utility payers, real estate buyers, hospital patients, disease sufferers, consumers of specific commodities, securitized air travelers, student borrowers, political dissidents, “street people,” defaulting child supporters, perpetrators of domestic violence, or criminals, among many other possibilities. My analysis of the data in Dixon and Gelman (2014) discovered more than 50 such common scores, and eight years later there undoubtedly are dozens more that have been invented and applied to the U.S. population.
The Dynamics of Dual Enslavement: Analog and Digital
In addition to extracting super-profits from debtors (e.g., via “foreclosures”), there are other ways in which expropriation and digitalization appropriate value from working people. The Behemoth’s algorithms–the FICO credit scores, the legally unregulated “consumer scores” that profile individuals’ work, consumption, and credit histories, the predictive policing scores, the digitalized background checks for prospective job applicants and apartment renters, and much more–dynamically reinforce and cement the connections between the surveillance by digital technologies and the “on the ground” analog expropriations that once only targeted racial groups like African Americans for special treatment, but now extend to the working class as a whole.
The defining characteristic of the putative “middle class” individual is the job. African-Americans are known to have lower average and median credit ratings than whites (Garcia Perez, Gaither and Darity 2020). One survey found that the 60% of employers surveyed ran credit checks of job applicants as part of the job application and review process (Wang 2018: 129). These could involve the applicant’s official FICO score, but more likely include one of the financial consumer scores referred to above (e.g., “Consumer Profitability Score”). In one study, one out of ten respondents who were unemployed were informed that they would not be hired for a job because of their credit report, while one in seven applicants with “blemished” credit histories were told they were not being hired because of their credit record. Those not even aware of the use of their electronic scores against them constitute many more who have been discriminated against. There is evidence that employers concerned about curbing their future health insurance costs due to unhealthy employees use health scores, scores from personality tests, and reputation scores to exclude persons with medical conditions when they apply for jobs (O’Neil 2017:213).
Credit scores are now used routinely by landlords who require these from prospective renters before agreeing to rent to them. These credit scores are increasingly derived from massive digital databases of prior renters as well as applicants without prior rental histories, are increasingly refined by electronic vetting corporations, and are resorted to by the large-scale absentee corporate landlords that took over distressed apartment housing after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. TransUnion advertises its SmartMove ResidentScore as estimating “the reliability and level of risk” an individual rental applicant brings, draws on the prior credit, rental/eviction and criminal histories of the applicant, and brags that landlords will “get a 15% better prediction score than a typical credit score.” The codification of discrimination through these new scores that draw on underlying databases as one might expect leads disproportionate numbers of African-American applicants for rental housing to be rejected, but large numbers of whites and Latinx applicants are also excluded.
In the cases of job hires and rental applications, expropriations brought on by digital and analog surveillance not only deny applicants access to specific kinds of jobs and housing, but also drive them into more insecure hyper-exploitative labor and predatory rental markets–where their labor power and incomes can be confiscated and put to work for accumulation by employers and landlords.
Even those who are too impoverished to be creditworthy have use-values that can be capitalized by capitalists. This illustrates another connection between expropriation, digitalization, and value extraction. If the presence of “street people” in the way of gentrification jeopardizes the realization of the market value of real estate, they must be separated by force from its spaces. This leads to police harassment and arrests of young men and women, disproportionately African-Americans and Latinx, but also including many whites.
Their arrests transform incarceration itself into a commodity. Large numbers of urban poor people are arrested and remain in local jails on trivial misdemeanor charges because they cannot afford to pay bail–a form of debtors’ prison. The families of those arrested and jailed send them money to pay for their food and telephone calls, thus subsidizing the privately-owned industries providing these services ($1.6 billion and $1.3 billion respectively). Even though three-fourths of all prisoners in local jails are never convicted of a crime, their jailing leads their families to raise money to pay for their bail, thus providing a $1.5 billion subsidy to the bail industry.
Criminalization and imprisonment of poor people are not only inscribed in the official hardcopy records of City Hall, but also in the digital data on “justice-involved” African-Americans and others collected, analyzed with algorithms, and commercially disseminated as scores by data brokers. Their electronic “criminal records”, even just arrests without convictions, follow them into the digital world and are used against them in job interviews and rental applications. Algorithms for predictive policing software (e.g., PREDPOL, COMPAS) pull the impoverished urban defendant down more tightly under the yoke of electronic prediction and control. PREDPOL concentrates police “stop and frisk” in specific urban areas with “high crime” and reinforces previous discrimination and leads to more arrests, injuries, and deaths among the urban poor. COMPAS scores the degree of “risk” of those convicted of “crime” to help judges determine whether they should be allowed free on probation or conversely sentenced for longer periods of time.
Employers, realtors, bankers, speculators, et al. profit from the expropriation of use values from poor people when such confiscations yield the values these economic elites realize (e.g., lower wages paid, higher rents extracted, houses foreclosed on and resold, higher payday loan and student debt interest payments, court fines and fees assessed, bails posted). Allies of these economic elites also profit from such expropriations. Judges set high court fees and impose steep fines on arrested and convicted poor people to raise revenues for local governments (Wang 2018, 155-161). Police confiscate the cash, houses, and cars of arrestees suspected of committing a crime through “civil forfeiture,” and use the plunder to benefit the local police force. Local Chambers of Commerce attract new capital to invest in gentrifying urban neighborhoods by supporting the evictions of poor residents from their rental units.
The Age of Covid: “Essential Workers,” Ironic Respite, Labor Militancy
Since March 2020, working-class people in the United States, especially African-Americans and other people of color, have suffered disproportionately from Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. They have witnessed one of the largest direct transfer of wealth from the state to corporations and the 1% in U.S. history–more than $2 trillion alone in one year in payments and tax breaks to corporations from the Covid-relief CARES Act. At the same time, they have also experienced the temporary economic security provided them by Covid-related transfer payments from the U.S. state (CARES Act and American Rescue Plan), while a CDC-imposed eviction moratorium has only recently come to an end. Historically, this is the first time that the U.S. state has intervened to provide basic income support for most of the working-class population over a protracted period of time, irrespective of whether they were employed. Finally, many have been rhetorically elevated in their status to “essential workers,” that is the idealized national sacrifice–most at risk of contracting and dying from Covid yet deemed most indispensable to “the economy.”
These contradictory experiences–temporary economic security, awareness that corporations received far more support than workers, disproportionate losses from Covid and unemployment, and for some, praise as essential workers–have been a revelation for many considering the decades of expropriation and hyper-exploitation recounted in this essay. Deadly pandemics, like war, tend to revolutionize one’s self-awareness and concentrate one’s imagination of the possible.
It is therefore not surprising that nurses, hospital orderlies, oil rig workers, Amazon warehouse laborers, and workers in cereals and agricultural equipment manufacturing are showing a profound unwillingness to rejoin “the economy” on capitalism’s terms–including persisting risks to their health from Covid imposed by employers–through workers’ militancy. In increasing numbers, for the first time since the emergence of the corporate state and the domination of finance capital, they are organizing themselves to confront the abuses of capital. Hopefully, these militants will soon be joined in larger numbers by low-end service and gig workers, as is already occurring in the fast foods industry.
Don Nonini is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has published extensively on Chinese trans-nationalism, on class and ethnic relations among the Chinese diaspora of Malaysia and Australia, and on local politics and race relations in the U.S.. He has authored, co-authored, and edited numerous books and reviewed journal articles on these topics.
- Dixon, P., and R. Gelman. (2014). “The Scoring of America: How secret consumer scores threaten your privacy and your future.” World Privacy Forum, 1-89.
- Fraser, N. (2016). “Expropriation and exploitation in racialized capitalism: A reply to Michael Dawson.” Critical Historical Studies 3(1), 163-178.
- García-Pérez, M., S. Gaither, and W. Darity Jr. (2020). “Baltimore study: Credit scores.” Working Paper Series, Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Washington, DC.
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- Harvey, D. (2004). “The New Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession.” Socialist Register 40, 63-87
- Hudson, M. W. (2010). The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America–and Spawned a Global Crisis. New York: Times books/Henry Holt and Company
- Kapferer, B. and M. Gold (2018). A nail in the coffin. Arena Magazine 152, 37-43.
- O’Neil, C. (2017). Weapons of Math Destruction. New York: Broadway Books.
- Wang, J. (2018). Carceral Capitalism. Intervention Series, 21. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e).