Academic journal article Capital & Class

Relative Surplus Population and Uneven Development in the Neoliberal Era: Theory and Empirical Application

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Relative Surplus Population and Uneven Development in the Neoliberal Era: Theory and Empirical Application

Article excerpt


A reasonable amount of research already exists with implicit but undeveloped connections to Marx's concept of the 'relative surplus population'. In particular, Davis's (2004a, 2004b, 2006) chilling depiction of mutual exploitation, illegal trades and selling of informal services, adopted as survivalist strategies amongst the increasing population of slum-dwellers located in the most impoverished parts of the world, has been a compelling inspiration for this paper. Similarly, research into the 'informal proletariat', 'surplus humanity', the 'informal sector', the 'new poor', 'working poor', the 'global poor', 'unprotected workers', the 'neo-proletariat' and the 'non-employed' all connect more or less with Marx's project to identify the process that relegates a large portion of the world's population to irregular, insecure, temporary and precarious forms of employment (Bauman, 1998; Breman, 2003; Davis, 2006; Gorz, 1982; Harrod, 2007; Portes, Castells and Benton, 1989; Sassen, 1994; Standing, 1997; Tokman, 2007; Walters, 1996). The explicit challenge laid down by Davis arises from his claim that this growing slum population is a development unexplained either by classical Marxism or neoliberal economics.

Bankrupt-but-hegemonic neoliberal mainstream theory is narrowly stuck in an a-social and a-historical analysis of the exchange relation. And while the disparate strands of radical labour market analysis powerfully critique the mainstream, they do not offer an alternative paradigm (see Fine, 2007; Fleetwood, 2006). The alternative to mainstream (un)employment theory outlined here is grounded in capitalist social relations of production and offers a missing element to the radical accounts, thus promoting their coherence and convergence. It builds on Marx's fragments of a radical alternative to mainstream (un)employment theory in Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value and in a more sustained way in his account of the relative surplus population in Chapter 25 of Capital Vol. 1. A further major task is to integrate these fragments with Marx's broader method and account of the core dynamic of capitalist social relations of production, and to specify the latter's relation to capitalism's uneven concrete historical development.

The paper proceeds as follows. First, the framework of a radical alternative to mainstream (un)employment theory is sketched. This alternative approach is focused on a theoretical account of the uneven development of the relative surplus population as an effect of the uneven unfolding across space and time of the logic of labour under the imperatives of the social relations of the capitalist mode of production. The second section outlines basic elements of a class analysis of the active army/relative surplus population division, which underpins a more detailed conceptual framework applied to statistically map its contemporary forms and composition across the countries of the world. A supplementary analysis of the 'latent surplus population' is then presented. Finally, different profiles of the relative surplus population across unevenly developing countries are linked to an analysis of the relative surplus population into the future.

Towards a new conceptual framework

According to Marx's analysis, capitalist development generates a contradictory temporal logic of employment that alternately makes labour surplus and redeploys surplus labour. On the one hand, capital's search for increasing productivity under the whip of competition reduces necessary labour time and implies, at any moment, the expulsion of a portion of the actively labouring population. While redundant, this surplus labour is a surplus population, 'useless until such time as capital can utilize it' (Marx, 1973: 399). On the other hand, capital can only transform surplus labour into surplus value by 'setting necessary labour in motion' to generate a surplus product (Marx, 1973). Therefore, while capital is constantly 'throwing workers on the streets' to maintain competitiveness, capital's interest is always to increase the actively labouring population (Marx, 1973; 1969: 573). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.