Reserve army of labour

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The Reserve army of labour are workers who are unemployed in a capitalist economy due to its inherent disorganization and inefficiency, a "permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people".[1] It is synonymous with "industrial reserve army" or "relative surplus population", except that the unemployed can be defined as those willing and able to work and 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. "Unemployment" and "employment" are concepts 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.

Karl 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 relative 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. If there are enough resources on the planet to provide all people with a decent life, the argument that there are "too many people" is rather dubious.

Marx's discussion of the concept

Although the idea of the industrial reserve army of labour is closely associated with Marx, it was already in circulation in the British labour movement by the 1830s.[2] The first mention of the reserve army of labour in Marx's writing occurs in a manuscript he wrote in 1847 but did not publish:

"Big industry constantly requires a reserve army of unemployed workers for times of overproduction. The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it, i.e., when the overpopulation is the greatest. Overpopulation is therefore in the interest of the bourgeoisie, and it gives the workers good advice which it knows to be impossible to carry out. Since capital only increases when it employs workers, the increase of capital involves an increase of the proletariat, and, as we have seen, according to the nature of the relation of capital and labour, the increase of the proletariat must proceed relatively even faster. The... theory... which is also expressed as a law of nature, that population grows faster than the means of subsistence, is the more welcome to the bourgeois as it silences his conscience, makes hard-heartedness into a moral duty and the consequences of society into the consequences of nature, and finally gives him the opportunity to watch the destruction of the proletariat by starvation as calmly as other natural event without bestirring himself, and, on the other hand, to regard the misery of the proletariat as its own fault and to punish it. To be sure, the proletarian can restrain his natural instinct by reason, and so, by moral supervision, halt the law of nature in its injurious course of development." - Karl Marx, Wages, December 1847[3]

Marx introduces the concept in chapter 25 of the first volume of Das Kapital, which he did publish twenty years later in 1867, stating that:

"capitalistic accumulation itself... constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of workers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the valorisation of capital, and therefore a surplus-population... It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same... The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital."

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. Fewer workers can produce all that is necessary for society's requirements. 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. One could add that the larger the wealth of society, the more people it can support who do not work.

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,

"Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle. They are, therefore, not determined by the variations of the absolute number of the working population, but by the varying proportions in which the working-class is divided into active and reserve army, by the increase or diminution in the relative amount of the surplus-population, by the extent to which it is now absorbed, now set free."

Marx concludes that: "Relative surplus-population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works." The availability of labour influences wage rates, and the larger the unemployed workforce grows, the more this forces down wage rates; conversely, if there are plenty jobs available and unemployment is low, this tends to raise the average level of wages - in that case workers are able to change jobs rapidly to get better pay.

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.

The reserve army of labour is sometimes referred to by the abbreviations I.R.A. (industrial reserve army) or R.A.U. (reserve army of the unemployed).


In recent years, there has been a growing use in Marxist and Anarchist theory of the concept of "the precariat," to describe a growing reliance on temporary, part-time workers of precarious status, who share aspects of the proletariat and the reserve army of labor.[4] Precarious workers do work part-time or fulltime in temporary jobs, but they cannot really earn enough to live on, and depend partly on friends or family, or on state benefits, to survive.

See also


  1. A phrase used in "Protesters Against Wall Street" an editorial in The New York Times October 8, 2011
  2. Michael Denning (2010) "Wageless life" New Left Review. 66: 79-97
  4. Choonara, Esme (October). [d "Is there a precariat?"]. Socialist Review. d 
  • Karl Marx, Das Kapital, chapter 25 [1]
  • 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.
  • E. Germain [pseud. Ernest Mandel] "Gibt es eine Marx'sche Verelendungstheorie?" in: Die Internationale : theoretisches Organ des revolutionären Marxismus (Vienna) [ISSN 0535-4005]. Issue 3, February 1957, pp. 25-35.
  • 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.
  • John A. Garraty, Unemployment in history : economic thought and public policy. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
  • David Harvey, Reading Marx's Capital. Class 11, Chapter 25. Video lecture.

External links

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