Surplus: Labour and Capital, Utopia and Dystopia

On this week’s show Aaron Bastani and James Butler are joined by Hannah Forbes Black as they discuss ideas of surplus in relation to labour and capital, utopia and dystopia.


This show centres around the notion of ‘surplus population’ – what Marx terms the ‘Industrial Reserve Army’ or ‘Reserve Army of Labour’ – or what we might call that portion of human beings whose unemployment is necessary for capitalism to function. Marx sketches out his point in chapter 25 of vol.1 of Capital thus: ‘…it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relativity redundant population of labourers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population.’ Or as Endnotes put the problem of surplus population in ‘Crisis in the Class Relation‘: ‘The tendency of labour-saving innovations to expel workers from the production process and generate a surplus population, where this population is able potentially to join the labour market, puts a downward pressure on wages and job security, and where it cannot join the labour market, vast slums are thrown up to house a human surplus whose reproduction is increasingly precarious and contingent.’ (Much of Endnotes #2 is devoted in differing ways to the question of surplus population; there is extensive work from  Sam Williams on the reserve army here.)

Alberto Toscano outlines several ‘coordinates’ for approaching the analysis of surplus population in a recent paper given at Historical Materialism – and ties in with this article in the NLR from Michael Denning on ‘wageless life’ (including a fascinating portion on the emergence of the concept of ‘unemployment’ itself.) Recent work in the US on the rise of the ‘permanent temp economy‘ by Erin Hatton gives some insight into the restructuring of the economy to deal with – to route around – the benefits accrued by people in contracted or permanent work, as a consequence of labour struggle through the twentieth century. Hatton points out the explosion in temporary work in the ‘boom’ period in the US thusly:

‘…temp industry leaders continued to encourage companies to “rent” workers rather than “buy” them. And perhaps even more persuasive than their arguments were the practical tools they were able to offer: thousands of low-cost temps, without the hassle of having to hire, train, supervise and fire them. Becoming lean and mean had never been easier, and thousands of companies began to go the temping route, especially during the deep economic recessions of the 1970s. Temporary employment skyrocketed from 185,000 temps a day to over 400,000 in 1980 — the same number employed each year in 1963. Nor did the numbers slow when good times returned: even through the economic boom of the ’90s, temporary employment grew rapidly, from less than 1 million workers a day to nearly 3 million by 2000.’

We suggest in the show that discernible in the economic history of the last few decades we begin to see a secular crisis: that is, the growth rate of GDP tends to slow over time, and, as labour-saving innovations generalise across different lines of production, capital throws off labour – i.e., a mass of workers becomes unemployed. As Marx put it, the proletarian ‘… is thrown onto the street as soon as he becomes superfluous to the need for valorisation.’ If capital cannot find new lines of production, develop new products, or experience a surge in production because of such developments, then we will see the rise of a consolidated surplus population, i.e., a population for whom unemployment is not simply conjunctural, or temporary. Much of the twentieth century includes such developments – often unexpected – as well as the rise of new forms of financial capital, credit economies, and the proliferation of the ‘service’ sector in developed economies – but the automation of much production, and the relatively low labour-power requirements of new developments in, e.g., consumer electronics suggests an uncertain future for many workers thrown off by the decline in old industries. (An overview of this framing is here.)

We note that unemployment, according to official statistics used by government, seems to have fallen while the economy remains stagnant. We suggest that failing to include underemployment and hidden unemployment (outside claimant figures) – the ‘halos’ around unemployment – mask the severity of this crisis. The political reasons for doing so are obvious. We suggest that using the metrics pioneered by the ILO to measure demand for work outside of strict unemployment paints a far less healthy picture for the UK. See the Eurostat analysis here for a starting point, and this table in particular.

The question of automation, which we raise toward the end of the show, finds its first clear statement in the infamous ‘Fragment on Machines‘ [.pdf] of the Grundrisse. This gives rise to the fascination with the ‘general intellect‘ in Italian ‘autonomist’ Marxism (cf. Tony Smith on the ‘general intellect’ here [.pdf], and an essay on ‘savior machines‘ in Jacobin ) Recently, even mainstream Keynesians, such as Krugman (e.g. here and here), have begun to turn their thoughts to automation – with suitably anti-Marxist apotropaisms of course – and the question has even graced the pages of the New Statesman (2) and the Financial Times. When starting to think what the future might look like we suggest one of the key questions might be: ‘… and who owns the robots?’

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