Academic journal article Capital & Class

From Structural Breakage to Political Reintegration of the Working Class: Relative Surplus Population Layers in Argentina and Their Involvement in the Piquetero Movement

Academic journal article Capital & Class

From Structural Breakage to Political Reintegration of the Working Class: Relative Surplus Population Layers in Argentina and Their Involvement in the Piquetero Movement

Article excerpt


This article analyses the ways in which the structural breaks that affect the working class as a whole can be overcome by means of political action. The development of the Argentinian piquetero movement, which structured the protests of employed and unemployed workers, and even of the petite-bourgeois sectors, is a clear example of this. In our perspective, the Marxist notion of relative surplus population is more adequate than the mainstream theories of unemployment and informal work to explain the roots of the precariousness of labour and the growing numbers that make up the unemployed fractions of the working class. At the same time, it helps us to understand how individuals can go from one fraction of the working class to the other, breaking away with the dichotomous theories that describe the excluded and included sectors respectively as two isolated social poles without any link or connection. For the same reason, the Marxist approach presents clear advantages when studying the joint political action of employed and unemployed workers, as opposed to the aforementioned dichotomous visions, which are quite unlikely to explain this confluence.

All modes of production have eventually given rise to a relative surplus population (RSP). Under capitalism, the RSP is formed by all those workers not productively employed by capital. Productive labour is only that which represents socially necessary labour time. Thus, we find that the RSP is formed, on one hand, by proletarians who are not employed at all by capital, and on the other hand, by those who are employed but whose work does not correspond to the socially necessary labour time; or, in other words, whose work does not achieve the average productivity for their sector.

Other features of the RSP follow from this core definition. The employed portion of the RSP whose labour does not attain the average level of social productivity tends to have very low incomes, which usually keep their living conditions lower than average. Poverty follows from belonging to the RSP; but this does not imply that the whole portion of the population that can be classified as poor belongs to the RSP.

Changes in the labour processes and the extension and the deepening of the regime of large-scale industry tend to enlarge the numbers of the RSP. This intensifies existent ruptures within the working class. The concept of the RSP allows us to understand not only these fractures, but also the underlying unity these fractions maintain. The persistence of a common substrate derived from its members' condition as part of the working class is, precisely, the basis upon which this unity can be recomposed in the political terrain. The Argentine case illustrates the fact that this task, though difficult, is not impossible.

In this article, we analyse the concept of RSP and contrast it with other alternative conceptualisations. Second, we study the different fractions of RSP in present-day Argentina, and investigate the elements that, in each case, favour or hinder its political action. Finally, focusing on both the main achievements as well as the weaknesses of the process, we examine the way in which these different fractions built joint political action.

Relative surplus labour: The Marxist notion

Although Marx writes in the 19th century, the central elements of his conception of population are still valid. As a matter of fact, it is possible to verify today aspects that in Marx's time could only be perceived as tendencies not yet fully developed. Rather than focusing on the specific conditions of the 19th century, we are interested in the way Marx conceives surplus population within the framework of the capitalist relations of production.

Marx's criticism of Malthus is useful for questioning current theories influenced by the latter. Marx questions Malthus's approach in two essential points. First, he does not consider that a unique population law could act in any mode of production. …

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.