Friday, March 21, 2014

Handbook for Democracy: Economic Deprivation

This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.

The next basic power technique is economic deprivation: if you can deprive an individual or group of the material resources needed for survival, for comfort, or to achieve important goals, then you can exert a great deal of control over them. Economic deprivation is only one step removed from direct coercive force: whereas force causes harm directly, economic deprivation causes it indirectly. If I hit you or shoot you I harm you directly; if I deprive you of food, with some delay starvation causes harm – but I have caused the starvation. Yet the harm is certainly proximate enough to function as a powerful control technique. In the case of both force and economic deprivation, not only the act, but also the threat, is sufficient to exert power.

Economic reward is the flip side of this power technique of economic deprivation, but is interesting enough to be explored on its own, and in my opinion is secondary to economic deprivation as a systemic control device.

The basic power principle of depriving or threatening to deprive someone of needed material goods and services is applied in many ways by human beings to exert economic control over each other. While methods like criminal extortion or slavery mainly use the threat of direct force, both wage labor and capital flight mainly use the threat of deprivation. It is even the basic mechanism by which the market controls market participants: buyers can threaten to take their money elsewhere. It is also a means by which working people can exert control over economic elites, on the occasions in this capitalist age when they are able to do so, in the form of the work stoppage or strike, which deprive the capitalist elite of the absolutely essential resource of labor.