The Discursive Framing Of A Surplus Population: Race And The Carceral State Book Review Sample

Type of paper: Book Review

Topic: Surplus, Sociology, United States, Crime, America, City, Social Issues, Population

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2021/02/14

Summary/Review of The Surplus American: How the 1% is Making us Redundant

Written by Charles Derber, a Professor of Sociology at Boston College, and Yale R. Magrass, a Chancellor Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, The Surplus American: How the 1% is Making US Redundant traces the etiology and developments that have contributed to the social dissolution experienced by Americans who have been left unemployed and seemingly redundant. This work discusses how “surplus people” have created a protracted crisis that is far more trenchant that the ubiquitous joblessness. Derber & Magrass (2012) identifies the main groups of people considered a part of this surplus population, which included retirees, the underemployed,, individuals who have been coerced or forcibly uprooted from or forced to leave the workforce, officials hired to control and supervise the unemployed, those who worked in makeshift work for businesses or the government, and individuals who worked to manage the unrest or to boost overall consumption. Member s of this “surplus population” are discursively limned as the dirty trash and underbelly of capitalist economies and societies such as the United States. As such, Derber and Magrass (2012) sketch illuminate a chilling counter-narrative about this sector of society over the last couple of centuries while also commenting on both the present and future states of a so-called “surplus nation.” Through the deployment off both theatrical and narrative devices, the authors frame this work by analyzing recent social movements spawned at the grassroots level such as Occupy Wall Street. Ultimately, Derber and Magrass conclude that the proliferation of new and more inclusive social justice movements are vital not only to resolve the problems and crises posed and created by the presence of a surplus nation but also to redirect a burgeoning economy that has increasingly become by the advent of new technologies, global corporations, and the outsourcing of jobs. Ultimately, various movements taking place within the surplus population are critical for solving this crisis and reoriented the American political economy in to a positive and constructive direction.

One twentieth century example of this so-called surplus nation has been analyzed by sociologists through the lens and discursive framing of race in the United States, as members of subaltern, non-white communities have increasingly become perceived of as members of a surplus population that must be controlled and contained. Christian Parenti (2000) proffers a provocative, cogent, and thought-provoking sociological narrative about crime becoming a form of social control through racialized laws. The “War on Poverty,” yet another strand of the so-called War on Crime, propelled blacks and Latinos to move into urban spaces because of the job opportunities that were available there. Unfortunately, increasing population density in urban spaces—especially by non-whites and members of subaltern communities—resulted in the escalation of urban crime. Big cities are statistically far more burdened by elevated crime rates than in suburban and pastoral regions. This demographic trend has been evident for centuries. Criminals participate in illicit criminal activity because of the potential to garner greater pecuniary benefits. However, it must be noted that non-pecuniary crimes including kidnapping, rape, and assault are also frequent crimes in urban spaces. The rest of the crimes reported in the cities are directly attributed to idiosyncratic characteristic traits of small and large cities as well as individuals, which involve various social influences, family structures, and particular tastes (Gleaser & Sacerdote, 1996, p. 1). Urban crime rates in the United States, however, greatly diminished during the 1990s, and they have remained stable at relatively low levels during the twenty-first century. Statistical evidence further suggests that this downward trend does not directly relate to shifting socioeconomic conditions in urban spaces. The oscillation of urban crime rates nonetheless directly impacts property values, demographics, migration patterns, and residential locations. Policy-makers at the local, state, and nationals levels have heavily invested in adequately staffing and funding competent police forces in order to take control of crimes at the city level, thereby rendering law enforcement responsible for the reduction of urban crime rates in a subjective manner. Evidence indicates that increasing public expenditures on local law enforcement agencies translates into the reduction of urban crime rates. Most sociologists and urban planners, however, eschew the commodious role of private law enforcement as well as community-level state control and protection efforts and the crucial role of usually uncompensated “private inputs into police investigations” (p. 2).
Charles Mill’s theory of “Black trash” directly connects white racism to the framework of people located at the bottom rungs of society who were projected as dirty pollution itself. Such discursive framing justifies the material dumping of trash in locales sullied by the presence of subaltern peoples who themselves were viewed as trash. Such notions convey the rationales invoked for creating toxic waste and trash sites near predominately African-American neighborhoods close. The image of African Americans as a metaphor for pollution is similar to the images of the immigrants and indigenous people—global exploitation of native racial construction of others as dirty and a form of pollution. Pollution and racialization work together with non-white bodies and are conflated with and imagined as thereby polluted bodies and pollution itself. Thus, space, pollution, and raciality are all interrelated as modeled by George Lipsitz’s assertion that all racial projects are spatial projects, and conversely all spatial projects are racial projects. Mills’ theory thus elucidates the ways in which modernity and political-economic structures embrace structures as well as how environmental racism is produced within western societies. Indeed, surplus peoples become associated with those who remained at the periphery of society and must be dealt with. For many sociologists, the emergence of the United States as a carceral state in which surplus, colored bodies were stored and controlled in prisons as a formative component of apartheid in the United States.
The forced integration of inner cities that began during the 1960s and 1970s created a phenomenon that became dubbed "white flight" in which white people quickly fled to the suburbs located on the outskirts of the city to avoid their property values from exponentially declining due to the presence of the surplus population. Indeed, an amalgam of demographic processes spawned the birth of a surplus population that was almost immediately abandoned in urban zones because of government apathy towards subaltern communities and the non-white bodies that were members of those communities. The creation of “social junk,” according to Christian Parenti (2000), emerged as a discursive mechanism that justified the exponential increases in the incarceration rates at the micro and macro levels, especially those who were members of non-white, impoverished communities in the inner cities. In order to combat an increasing surplus population in urban locales, states including California constructed a litany of new prisons to both house and coerce the surplus population to labor as members of this newly construction social category. Moreover, the legal construction of what constituted a crime also had to widen the definition of what constituted a crime vis-à-vis laws that had not been considered crimes before in order to validate the imprisonment of these surplus bodies. Tilly (1998) discerns that agencies of social control, in collusion with local governments and police forces, resolved clear-cut organizational issues vis-à-vis stringent categorical distinctions. Interior categories in a litany of crimes and punishments must correlate with exterior categories including race, ethnicity, and gender (Tilly, 1998, p. 8). These carious distinctions and categories, according to Tilly, retain political and social currency when coupled together as "unequal categories." If organizations at both the local and national levels embrace these "categorical distinctions," the variances become imbued with greater currency in the social control of so-called undesirables (p. 9). These categories and distinctions, Tilly contends, retain social and political currency if they are paired together as "unequal categories." When various organizations at the local and national level embrace these same "categorical distinctions," the variances gain more currency in social control (Tilly, 1998 p. 9). Drug policy has emerged as a poignant example of the aforementioned means of social control vis-a-vis public policies and laws at past at the local, state, and federal levels. Agencies charged with the duty of both implementing and enforcing drug policies and stringent drug laws often correlate so-called "interior categories" of drug classification and the ensuing punishment levied for the consumption and/or possession of illicit drugs by members in at-risk communities perceived as predisposed to criminality, prone to illicit drug consumption as a result of their social background--which constitutes an exterior category—and their membership in the surplus population.


Derber and Magrass cautiously examine excess in the American economy as well as in the quotidian habits of American citizens. The authors portend a dystopic vision of America in the year 2020 in which Americans have been rendered both redundant and unnecessary as a result of business plans of action, technological developments and changes, and subcontracting, which leads them to abandon the basic financial infrastructure of the corporate politics trending in America today. Interestingly, this publication was penned prior to the apex of the Occupy Wall Street Movement that swept across the United States. Nonetheless, the author seemingly prophesize how the “redundant” and “excess” members of American society chafe against the financial elites whose businesses and practices, if continued at the current pace, will ultimately manifest the dystopia discussed by Derber and Magrass. Interestingly, the authors provide a litany of sociological critiques of the current political economic in America. Interestingly, despite their assertions regarding the surplus of unemployment and jobs, the authors nonetheless laud Keynesian economic theory over that which was made famous by Karl Marx during the nineteenth century. Derber and Magrass begin their discussion by explaining the notion of surplus people and how the government and financial and businesses corporations reap great benefits at the expense of surplus populations which they themselves have created. Moreover, they cogently consider how the very nature of American capitalism has created these surplus populations and subcultures since its inception. Industrial and developed countries have historically managed and controlled surplus peoples vis-à-vis workfare and warehouses within the economic realm in a similar fashion to how the American government warehouses surplus, nonwhite bodies in the urban inner cities by mass incarceration. Indeed, economic and social policies in the United States during the twentieth century further contributed to the creation of surplus populations as a means of widening the chasm between the rich and the poor while sustaining the socioeconomic status quo at the expense of surplus peoples.
The Surplus American proffers a cogent analysis and theatrical productions that explain the antecedents and infrastructure of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which did not germinate out of the blue. The following two sections feature theatrical plays that are didactic in nature regarding the production of surplus populations and surplus nations at the hands of various well-known intellectual and political figures during the modern era. The Occupy Wall Street Movement had a stories history in the trajectory of labor history in the United States spawned by various economic crises within the context of a corporate America. The authors time and again articulate their beliefs that Occupy movement provide a space and potentiality of uniting diverse and heterogeneous socioeconomic groups and usher in a new generation of American citizens that embraced visionary and progressive political activism and critical thinking.
Thus, Deber and Magrass unequivocally engaged in visionary sociological activism in this work in order to improve themselves as both scholars and pedagogues. Immersing themselves in the material realities and real-world struggles seemingly drove these authors to use their writing and scholarly clout in order to improve hegemonic social and economic institutions that they believe are inherently violent and disruptive. As such, the authors also articulate an argument about the episteme and discipline of sociology itself by arguing that participating in modern grassroots movements is necessary for modern sociological methodologies for the collection of empirical information as well as building and developing sociological theory. Indeed, social and economic crises that continue to hamper the well-being of society at large calls for active and engaged sociologists who embrace their role as both scholar and activist. This dual role undergirds their ability and agency to see that social, political, and economic transformations manifest themselves within the context of modernity and the advent of new technologies. Sociological epistemologies and knowledge reproduction is obsolete if they are not translated into progressive action, a specter that Derber and Magrass opine about in their discussion about the possibility of a dystopia in 2020.


Derber and Magrass combine narrative with theater in order to elicit the curiosity and interests of laymen and professionals alike through an accessible yet cogent argument. Indeed, they convey a strong command over the major political and economic issues that Americans are currently confronting. The designation of a surplus population and surplus nation functioned as a means of reifying the status quo and sustaining socioeconomic and cultural systems predicated on endemic criminality, the unequal distribution of wealth, a widening chasm between the rich and the poor, and the marginalization of subaltern groups based on racial ideology rooted in a possessive investment in whiteness and white hegemony. Derber and Magrass effectively dramatize the potent socioeconomic forces continue to undermine job security in a way that widens the category of the surplus population to include neglected and downcast socioeconomic groups. American has transformed into a land of surplus bodies rather than a land of opportunity a democratic system that is shredding and being torn asunder; and a quickly decaying infrastructure that underscores the necessity of Americans and the government today to take serious action against. Students of modern America, corporate politics, economic history, and economic theory would benefit from this monograph. Gerber and Magrass articulate a dystopic narrative about the future dangers in America unless novel forms of democratic resistance materialize in various ways.


Derber, C., & Magrass, Y. (2012). The surplus American: How the 1% is making us redundant. Boulder: Paradigm.
Glaeser, E. L., & Sacerdote, B. (1996, June 1). Why is there more crime in cities?. NBER. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from
Parenti, C. (2000). Crime as social control. Social Justice, 27(3), 43-49.
Tilly, C. (1998). Durable inequality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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