The Potentiality and the Consequences of Surplus: Agricultural Production and Institutional Transformation in the Northern Basin of Mexico



Social scientists define surplus as excess, either excess production beyond a physiologically defined threshold or excess labor that can then be routed to “non-productive” means. Methodologically, this model is advantageous and simplifies analysis. Yet this approach can render social minimums as secondary to biological minimums and economic production as distinctive from social production. Subjectively, meeting biological requirements often are secondary to meeting societal obligations. Many producers in past states, for example, had to pay a set tax even in cases of poor yields. Today, paying one's rent or mortgage can entail sacrificing a healthy diet. Simultaneously, social and economic opportunities also shape surplus production—the ability to enrich relationships, participate in the market, host significant events, and gain prestige. Documenting biological minimums, while allowing us to recognize excess methodologically, sometimes has limited value in understanding surplus subjectively. Surplus represents a potentiality, which can be employed creatively or destructively. Within these extremes lay real people, both the powerful and the powerless, making decisions and inheriting their consequences.