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The proliferation of neoliberal policies in China since 1978 have led to an unquestionable rise in income inequality and precarious conditions for the labor force. During his lecture at Bennington College, Vamsi Vakulabharanam presented a clear picture of the widening gap between the ruling classes and workers in China. From 1988 until 2013, the urban elite, which is most likely to have ownership to the means of production or posses land titles, has been the only segment of the population whose income growth to mean ratio has increased. The traditional Marxist notion of class employed by Professor Vamsi, as determined by the relation to the means of production views class struggle under capitalism as the struggle of capital against labor. It would seem that the empirical illustration provided by the rising income inequality levels in China during the neoliberal period largely unravel around Marx’s theorization of class struggle. While both income inequality and Marx’s notion of class present a picture of the distribution of wealth and power, they fail to account for 1) the experience of depravation suffered by the most destitute in regard to income inequality and 2) for the class positioning of individuals expelled from formal economic arrangements that would jump at the opportunity to secure formal employment. These experiences include those of the homeless population, inhabitants of growing slums, racialized and undocumented migrants, the growing incarcerated population and many more populations that make their living under informal economic arrangements. In this reflection paper I concentrate on the reasons why the neoliberal development of China underscores the need for new understandings of class theory as the axis for critical scientific social analysis, so as to account for the experiences and intersecting political interests of growing populations expelled from the relationship of wage labor.
As David Harvey makes clear in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, China’s surplus population is rapidly increasing, leading the state with a choice to absorb surplus labor or violently suppress it. The path of absorption followed through the financing of infrastructural and fixed capital projects (pg. 141) has led to an increase in the urban populations that now depend on the relationship of wage labor for the reproduction of their means of existence. At the same moment, the rate of resource extraction in the neoliberal era (especially in China) in the sectors of energy, labor and agriculture has brought prices down for food and other basic goods to such an extent as to support the bare minimum needed for survival. The battle cry of austerity even in the face of grand infrastructural investments is: we have to do more with less. In the face of environmental degradation and myriad food poisoning scandals, the experience of neoliberalism for many Chinese workers has been one of sacrifice for capitalism for very little in return. The situation is even more precarious for those that fall outside of the ranks of the formal economy. Consider for example when 70 million farmers over one decade lost their lands claims because they did not posses formal titles, surely many of these farmers moved into the cities and became wage laborers. In many instances the Chinese state employed them or financed their employment in fixed capital development projects. When these development projects run their course, they find themselves not only unemployed, but living in urban environments where existence is dependent on work positions that are becoming increasingly scarce. Neoliberal mechanisms and logics of absorption into the formal economy and subsequent expulsion require a re thinking of Marxist notion on class based largely on the struggle between capital and labor. China especially showcases the role and power of the state in shaping the conditions for surplus labor populations. New paradigms for class theory will offer us better analytical categories through which to judge the experiential impact of income inequality for these populations.
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