Social Sciences

Start Free Trial

Discuss the "functional" status of the drug war and similar crusades (keep in mind the various groups which serve as reserve labor forces) for such an economy. How do these sorts of crime and crusading illustrate theories of deviance that you've learned? Think in terms of both the most popular deviants and the crusaders who hunt them.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This question seems to be founded in the conflict theory of deviance, on which the concepts of which behaviors are "normal" versus "deviant" depend upon who has power and privilege in society. The idea of "reserve labor forces" (not a standard economic concept) suggests specifically a Marxist approach. While I do not particularly agree with this theory, I'm willing to discuss what it would say about the matter. It's worthwhile to understand what a given theory would say even if it is wrong, in order to more clearly grasp why it is mistaken.

One thing that has been aptly noted about the War on Drugs, for example, is its strong focus on racial minorities. There definitely has been a strong tendency for law enforcement to crack down hardest on Black and Hispanic people, especially young men, even though the evidence suggests that Black and Hispanic individuals are not particularly more likely to use drugs (indeed that almost no demographic factors strongly affect drug use at all---people with more money use more expensive drugs like powder cocaine and synthetic opiates instead of less expensive drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine, but that's about it).

On this Marxist theory, this is an attempt by the ruling class to use racial divisions to rally the proletariat against itself. By enlisting some of the working class as police officers and then deploying them to brutally punish others of the working class who engage in behavior perceived as deviant, the ruling capitalist class can simultaneously provide a source of artificial employment (hiring police officers) to offset the falling labor demand due to increased productivity, and also keep the proletariat from revolting against their true enemies by keeping them occupied with infighting.

This artificial employment is what is meant by "reserve labor force"; another term often used in Marxian analysis is "surplus population"---the "extra" people who don't have any particular work to do but nonetheless must be fed and kept out of trouble. (The idea is quite ancient: In Classical Rome the phrase was panem et circenses, "bread and circuses").

Thus, at least on this theory, the War on Drugs functions as a means for the ruling class to retain power and create the illusion of full employment. Thus it is not in their interest for the crusade to actually be effective; on the contrary, if it succeeded in reducing drug use it would have to be scaled down, and then what would we do with all these extra people? On this theory, the failure of the War on Drugs to reduce drug use is not a bug, but a feature.

I don't buy it for a couple of reasons:

One, you can't manufacture these intra-class hatreds whole cloth. Racism had to already exist in order for racism to be deployed as a means of social control. And once racism does exist, do we really need to explain it in terms of social control? I can imagine some leaders manipulating racism in this way; but racism itself runs much deeper. It's probably genetic, an ancient evolutionary program that motivates us to love the ingroup and hate the outgroup.

Two, there does not appear to be a clearly defined "reserve labor force"; while labor force participation does exhibit a slow secular decline of late, it's much slower than the rise in productivity. While productivity has risen by a factor of 4 since the 1950s, labor participation has only fallen from a high of 67%, and that is coming down from a peak in the 1990s. Labor force participation in the 1950s was actually lower than it is today. Nor can this be accounted for by the rise in police and military---while that rise is genuine, it's far too small a portion of the population to account for the labor force participation. As productivity rose, income did as well. Inequality did increase starting in the 1980s, and this is definitely a problem; but real median income is still higher now than it was in 1950.

Three, even if we conceded the existence of this "reserve labor force" or "surplus population", there would be much more efficient ways to solve the problem than military and police forces, which are extremely expensive. Rather than pay police to try to keep people down, it would make more sense to establish social welfare programs that lift people up, or even create actual "fake jobs" in the government that guarantee employment (admittedly a policy that was not very successful in the USSR). This would not only maintain control for a comparable expenditure, it would also make the ruling class more popular and repress the desire for revolt as well as the capability.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team