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The Language of Expulsion

Whether the long-term unemployed in the global North or the long-term displaced in the global South, people are being expelled from economy, society and nation in increasing numbers.

(Photo: Zoriiah / Flickr)

Part of the Series

When we discuss rising inequality, poverty, imprisonment, foreclosed homes and other injustices, simply engaging in familiar discussions about these increases in disparities does not capture the larger reality we must face. We need new language. I use the term “expulsions” to mark the radicalness of that necessary shift. [1]

For instance, we need new language to express the fact that a growing number of adult men in poor neighborhoods in the United States have not ever held a job; the phrase “long-term unemployment” is much too vague and fails to capture a radical structural condition. Our language must recognize that the 52 million people identified by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as “displaced people” are almost never returning home, because their “homes” have been replaced by a new luxury building, a plantation, a war zone. Both the long-term unemployed and the long-term displaced have, in fact, been expelled from society.

These, and many other expulsions take on specific forms in each location of the world, and they have specific contents in diverse domains: economy, society, politics. Indeed, they are so specific in each place and domain – and are usually studied in these very specific contexts – that it is difficult to see that they might be the surface manifestations of deeper trends that today cut across the familiar divisions. To return to the two examples mentioned here: Experts on long-term unemployment in the Global North do not really study the displaced in the Global South, and vice-versa. And yet, at ground level, these displacements share a simple, common element: There are people being (usually permanently) cast out of what had been their lives.

We must find ways to discuss the systemic edges hidden deep inside the territory of the national. These edges are not to be confused with national borders or other politico-administrative divisions, even though they may coincide in some cases. Further, once the unemployed or the displaced, or so many other versions of the expelled, cross this systemic edge, they become a bit invisible; they are less likely to be counted in measures of GDP per capita or in a census. This is becoming a bit invisible as it applies to people, places, failed small businesses, neighborhoods destroyed by hurricanes, neighborhoods destroyed by mortgage foreclosures, and more.

All these expulsions, and so many others not mentioned here, coexist with growth in “the” economy, even if the space of that economy is shrinking. This coexistence of growth (as conventionally measured) and these expulsions further add to the invisibility of those who are expelled from job and home.

Complex forms of knowledge we admire come into play in many of these expulsions – notably, advanced mathematics for the algorithms of finance and complex legal innovations to enable the massive land-grabs that took off in 2006. I see this mal-deployment of knowledge as a major issue in our current global political economy. It brings to the fore the fact that forms of knowledge and intelligence we respect and admire are often at the origin of long transaction chains that can end in simple brutalities. One example of a simple expulsion would be the low-paid unhealthy jobs that are part of the complex logistics of outsourcing. These complex forms of knowledge produce grand expulsions, as when one builds an enormous dam that buries whole villages and farmlands, thereby making visible its destructive side.

Certain extreme cases make that mal-deployment of knowledge sharply visible. For instance, the so-called subprime mortgage developed in the 2000s was a financial project aimed at developing new types of asset-backed securities and collateralized debt. It is not to be confused with the state-sponsored, sub-prime mortgages of an earlier period, aimed at genuinely helping modest-income families to own a home.

The new versions of subprime mortgages used the modest homes involved to meet the growing demand for asset-backed securities by investors, in a market where the outstanding value of derivatives was $630 trillion, or 14 times the value of global GDP.

Investors were clamoring for some real assets backing securities, not just derivatives on interest rates and so on in long chains of hypotheticals. The complexity of financial engineering was deployed to de-link the actual (modest) value of the house and of the mortgage from the asset-backed security aimed at the high-finance circuit. Various financial maneuvers were used to camouflage the modesty of the actual material assets. A high-finance instrument was developed on the backs of “the little people.” The challenge was to delink such that even if the buyers of the house could not pay, it really did not matter – the high-investment circuit would have made its money, and only those who had held on to the mortgages would suffer with the eventual crisis.

When this short and brutal history was over in 2010, over 13 million such contracts had been signed and 9 million households – that could be about 30 million people or more – had lost their homes, according to the Federal Reserve. Now this instrument is circulating in Europe, where every year several hundred thousand households are losing their homes. Some of the highest numbers of foreclosures in Europe are happening in Germany, the country we think of as having avoided all forms of the crisis.

When we consider them all together, the diverse expulsions across countries may well have a greater impact on the shaping of our world than the rapid economic growth in India, China and a few other countries. Indeed, such expulsions can coexist with economic growth as counted by standard measures.

These expulsions don’t simply happen; they are made. The instruments for this “making” range from elementary policies to complex techniques requiring specialized knowledge and intricate organizational formats. And the channels for expulsion vary greatly. They include austerity policies that have helped shrink the economies of Greece and Spain, and environmental policies that overlook the toxic emissions from enormous mining operations.

Historically, the oppressed have often risen against their “masters.” Today, despite movements of resistance around the globe, such opposition is often prevented by the way in which the oppressed have been expelled and survive at a great distance from their oppressors. Addressing this reality full on will require recognizing the radical character of these expulsions – a bit more job growth, a bit more help with housing: None of this will be enough to restore a measure of social justice in this world.

[1] This essay and the talk for the Disposable Life series is based on my latest book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press/Belknap 2014).

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