Reserve army of labour

Reserve army of labour

Reserve army of labour is a concept in Karl Marx's critique of political economy. It refers basically to the unemployed in capitalist society. It is synonymous with "industrial reserve army" or "relative surplus population", except that the relative surplus population also includes people unable to work. The use of the word "army" refers to the workers being conscripted and regimented in the workplace in a hierarchy, under the command or authority of the owners of capital. Marxist theoryPrior to the capitalist era in human history, structural unemployment on a mass scale rarely existed, other than that caused by natural disasters and wars. Indeed, the word "employment" is linguistically a product of the capitalist era.

A permanent level of unemployment presupposes a working population which is to a large extent dependent on a wage or salary for a living, without having other means of livelihood, as well as the right of enterprises to hire and fire employees in accordance with commercial or economic conditions.

Marx argued that there are no substantive laws of population that hold good for all time; instead, each specific mode of production has its own specific demographic laws. If there was "overpopulation" in capitalist society, it was overpopulation in relation to the requirements of capital accumulation. Consequently, demography could not simply just count people in various ways, it also had to study the social relations between them as well.

Marx's discussion of the concept

Marx introduces the concept in chapter 25 of Das Kapital, stating that

His argument is that as capitalism develops, the organic composition of capital will increase, which means that the mass of constant capital grows faster than the mass of variable capital. In addition, capital will become more concentrated and centralized in fewer hands.

This being the "absolute" historical tendency, part of the working population will tend to become "surplus" to the requirements of capital accumulation over time. Paradoxically, the larger the wealth of society, the larger the industrial reserve army will become.

However, as Marx develops the argument further, it also becomes clear that, depending on the state of the economy, the reserve army of labour will either expand or contract, alternately being absorbed or expelled from the employed workforce. Thus,

Marx concludes that: "Relative surplus-population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works."

Composition of the relative surplus population

Marx argues the relative surplus population always has three forms: the "floating", the "latent" and the "stagnant".

*The "floating" part refers to the temporarily unemployed ("conjunctural unemployment").

*The "latent" part consists of that segment of the population not yet fully integrated into capitalist production - for example, part of the rural population. It forms a pool or reservoir of potential workers for industries.

*The "stagnant" part consists of marginalised people with "extremely irregular employment". Its lowest stratum (excepting criminals, vagabonds and prostitutes) "dwells in the sphere of pauperism", including those still able to work, orphans and pauper children, and the "demoralised and ragged" or "unable to work".

Marx then analyses the reserve army of labour in detail, using data on Britain where he lived.

Modern official social statistics however do not use these Marxian categories. Instead, the concepts of the "economically active population", the (employed and unemployed) "labour force", and the "jobless" are used. Important measurement criteria here are:

*whether somebody is actively looking for paid work ("unemployed")
*whether they are without paid work but would like to do paid work ("jobless")
*how many hours per week they actually do paid work.

People who are unable to work for one reason or another are normally not treated as "unemployed".


Some writers have interpreted Marx's argument to mean that an "absolute immiseration of the working class" would occur as the broad historical trend. Thus, the workers would become more and more impoverished, and unemployment would constantly grow. This is of course not really credible in the light of the facts, because in various epochs and countries, workers' living standards have definitely improved rather than declined. In some periods, unemployment had been reduced to a very small amount.

Other writers (e.g. Ernest Mandel and Roman Rosdolsky) however argued that in truth Marx had no theory of an absolute immiseration of the working class; at most one could say that the rich-poor gap continues to grow, i.e. the wealthy get wealthier much more than ordinary workers improve their living standards. In part, the level of unemployment also seems to be based on the balance of power between social classes and state policy. Governments can allow unemployment to rise, but also implement job-creating policies, which makes unemployment levels partly a political result.

Another dispute concerns the notion of "overpopulation". In Marx's own time, Malthus raised dire predictions that population growth enabled by capitalist wealth would exceed the food supply required to sustain that population. As noted, for Marx, "overpopulation" was really more an ideologically loaded term or social construct, and Marxists have argued there is no real problem here, as enough food can be produced for all; if there is a problem, it lies in the way that food is produced and distributed.

In the social welfare area, there are also perpetual disputes about the extent to which unemployment is voluntarily chosen by people, or involuntary, whether it is forced on people or whether it is their own choice. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment rose to 20-30% of the working population in many countries, and people generally believed it was involuntary. But if unemployment levels are relatively low, the argument that unemployment is a matter of choice is more often heard.

Finally, there are endless debates about the best way to measure unemployment, its costs and its effects, and to what extent a degree of unemployment is inevitable in any country with a developed labour market. According to the NAIRU, price stability in market-based societies necessarily requires a certain amount of unemployment. If the level of unemployment is too low, it will stimulate price inflation.

A global reserve army of labour?

Marx was writing in the mid-19th century, and obviously his discussion of unemployment is therefore in part out of date. However, his analysis may have a validity, if considered globally.

The ILO reports that the proportions of world unemployment are steadily increasing.

*Half of all workers in the world - some 1.4 billion working poor - currently live in families that survive on less than US$2 a day per person. They work in the vast informal sector - from farms to fishing, from agriculture to urban alleyways - without benefits, social security or health care. Some 550 million working poor live on US$1 or less per day.

*Unemployment in terms of actual people out of work is at its highest point ever and continues to rise. In the last ten years, official unemployment has grown by more than 25 % and now stands at nearly 192 million worldwide, or about 6 % of the global workforce. Unemployed and "under"-employed together total about a billion people.

*Of these unemployed, the ILO estimates that 86 million, or about half the global total, are young people aged 15 to 24.

ee also

*Full employment
*Labour power
*Wage slavery
*Working class


*Karl Marx, Das Kapital, chapter 25 []

*Michel de Vroey, "Involuntary Unemployment; The Elusive Quest for a Theory". Routledge, 2004.
*Göran Therborn, "Why Some Peoples Are More Unemployed than Others". Verso, 1986.
*Roman Rosdolsky, "The making of Marx's 'Capital"'. Pluto, 1977.
*Tom Brass and Marcel Van Der Linden (eds.), "Free and Unfree Labour: The Debate Continues" (International and Comparative Social History, 5). New York: Peter Lang AG, 1997.
*Ben Fine, "Labour Market Theory: A Constructive Reassessment". Routledge, London, 1998.
*Frank Furedi, "Population and Development: A Critical Introduction". St. Martin’s Press. 1997.

External links

ILO data on global unemployment
* []

ILO global unemployment report
* []

CPGB Draft Programme entry on the unemployed:
* []

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