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The Surplus Population


 Capital Vol 1, Karl Marx (1867)

Chapter Twenty-Five: The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation

Section 3 – Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army

The accumulation of capital, though originally appearing as its quantitative extension only, is effected, as we have seen, under a progressive qualitative change in its composition, under a constant increase of its constant, at the expense of its variable constituent. [13]

The specifically capitalist mode of production, the development of the productive power of labour corresponding to it, and the change thence resulting in the organic composition of capital, do not merely keep pace with the advance of accumulation, or with the growth of social wealth. They develop at a much quicker rate, because mere accumulation, the absolute increase of the total social capital, is accompanied by the centralisation of the individual capitals of which that total is made up; and because the change in the technological composition of the additional capital goes hand in hand with a similar change in the technological composition of the original capital. With the advance of accumulation, therefore, the proportion of constant to variable capital changes. If it was originally say 1:1, it now becomes successively 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 7:1, &c., so that, as the capital increases, instead of ½ of its total value, only 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 1/8, &c., is transformed into labour-power, and, on the other hand, 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, 5/6, 7/8 into means of production. Since the demand for labour is determined not by the amount of capital as a whole, but by its variable constituent alone, that demand falls progressively with the increase of the total capital, instead of, as previously assumed, rising in proportion to it. It falls relatively to the magnitude of the total capital, and at an accelerated rate, as this magnitude increases. With the growth of the total capital, its variable constituent or the labour incorporated in it, also does increase, but in a constantly diminishing proportion. The intermediate pauses are shortened, in which accumulation works as simple extension of production, on a given technical basis. It is not merely that an accelerated accumulation of total capital, accelerated in a constantly growing progression, is needed to absorb an additional number of labourers, or even, on account of the constant metamorphosis of old capital, to keep employed those already functioning. In its turn, this increasing accumulation and centralisation becomes a source of new changes in the composition of capital, of a more accelerated diminution of its variable, as compared with its constant constituent. This accelerated relative diminution of the variable constituent, that goes along with the accelerated increase of the total capital, and moves more rapidly than this increase, takes the inverse form, at the other pole, of an apparently absolute increase of the labouring population, an increase always moving more rapidly than that of the variable capital or the means of employment. But in fact, it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively 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.

Considering the social capital in its totality, the movement of its accumulation now causes periodical changes, affecting it more or less as a whole, now distributes its various phases simultaneously over the different spheres of production. In some spheres a change in the composition of capital occurs without increase of its absolute magnitude, as a consequence of simple centralisation; in others the absolute growth of capital is connected with absolute diminution of its variable constituent, or of the labour power absorbed by it; in others again, capital continues growing for a time on its given technical basis, and attracts additional labour power in proportion to its increase, while at other times it undergoes organic change, and lessens its variable constituent; in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels. [14]With the magnitude of social capital already functioning, and the degree of its increase, with the extension of the scale of production, and the mass of the labourers set in motion, with the development of the productiveness of their labour, with the greater breadth and fulness of all sources of wealth, there is also an extension of the scale on which greater attraction of labourers by capital is accompanied by their greater repulsion; the rapidity of the change in the organic composition of capital, and in its technical form increases, and an increasing number of spheres of production becomes involved in this change, now simultaneously, now alternately. The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. [15] This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production; and in fact every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.

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Workers of the World, Fight Amongst Yourselves!

Notes on the Refugee Crisis

by Friends of the Classless Society via Endnotes

The following text, by the Freundinnen und Freunden der klassenlosen Gesellschaft, was published in the October and November issues of the German leftist magazine Konkret. Translated here by Endnotes. 



Last fall it appeared as if we were witnessing a political turning point. A mass movement of migrants showed fortress Europe the limits of its reach. This was, however, only a movement in the literal sense of the word and certainly not the awakening of a “multitude” shaking the foundations of the prevailing order. Migrants had no demands beyond the right to remain in Europe, a right which they had already temporarily asserted. In Germany, as the state failed to mobilize adequate resources, the logistics involved with the arrival of refugees were mostly left to volunteers. Meanwhile, the radical left took to celebrating the collapse of the European border regime as an act of “self-empowerment” or as “autonomy of migration”.

Others spied a sinister capitalist master plan behind Angela Merkel’s temporary open border policy. According to this interpretation, the policy sought to use cheap, docile immigrants to restructure the European labour market. Some on the left viewed this as a threat and have therefore joined calls for the erection of walls around Europe. They were further emboldened by the mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, in which hundreds of women were groped, robbed, and, in a few cases, raped by a large group of men of “Arab or North African appearance”. In light of the EU’s deal with Turkey and the internment camps currently being planned for Libya, both of these interpretations look dubious. After being taken by surprise, the powers that be have regained control of the situation and their need for cheap labour seems rather limited. On the contrary, the events of the past year reflect an overwhelming surplus of labour power, both in the countries of origin and in Europe. This surplus intensifies competition within the working class, breeding nativism, division and fear of poverty. If we are to understand this situation, we need to do more than decry racism.

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Kosmoprolet 4


Erhältlich ab September 2015 | 208 Seiten | 5 € / 6 CHF

Herausgegeben von den »Freundinnen und Freunden der klassenlosen Gesellschaft» (Berlin), »eiszeit« (Schweiz) und »la banda vaga« (Freiburg)

■ Editorial
■ Abseits des Spülbeckens. Fragmentarisches über Geschlechter und Kapital
■ Reflexionen über das Surplus-Proletariat. Phänomene, Theorie, Folgen
■ Elend und Schulden. Zur Logik und Geschichte von Überschussbevölkerungen und überschüssigem Kapital
■ Moloch und Heilsbringer. Zur Geschichte und Kritik des Sozialstaats
■ Israel, Palästina und der Universalismus
■ Leiharbeit. Ende der Identifikation mit der Ausbeutung oder doch nur Waffe des Kapitals?
■ Zwischen Eigentor und Aufstand. Ultras in den gegenwärtigen Revolten

Einzelexemplare gibt es bei Syndikat-A in Deutschland, sowie in verschiedenen Buch- und Infoläden zahlreicher Städte in Deutschland und der Schweiz. WiederverkäuferInnen bestellen über das Kontaktformular. Sie bekommen (inkl. Versandkosten): 3 Ex. für 12 €; 5 Ex. für 18 €; 10 Ex. für 35 €. Die Auslieferung erfolgt nur gegen Vorkasse auf das Konto: Weltcommune, Konto Nr.: 494584109, Postbank Berlin (BLZ 10010010). Als Verwendungszweck den Namen des Bestellers angeben.


Das Jahr 2011, in dem die Leute an vielen Orten in Scharen auf die Straße und manchmal auf die Barrikaden gingen, wurde oft mit 1968 verglichen. Kommentatoren, denen Revolutionsromantik fern liegt, stellten verblüfft fest, dass weltweit sogar erheblich mehr Menschen in Bewegung geraten waren als im legendären Jahr der Revolte. Seitdem hat sich die Lage bekanntlich je nach Land eingetrübt oder pechschwarz verfinstert. Wo 2011 Plätze besetzt wurden, wie in Europa, herrscht wieder der bekannte Alltagstrott, ohne dass sich an den Gründen zum Aufbegehren etwas geändert hätte. Wo Diktaturen gestürzt oder wenigstens ins Wanken gebracht wurden, wie in der arabischen Welt, herrscht heute fast ausnahmslos das Militär oder ein Bürgerkrieg unter reger Beteiligung von Djihadisten. Aus dem großen Aufbruch ist nichts geworden, zumindest nichts Gutes. Fast scheint die Regel zu gelten, dass die Misere umso größer ist, je weiter die Rebellierenden gegangen sind. Stillhalten wird zwar nicht belohnt, aber wenigstens auch nicht bestraft.

Trotzdem plagt die Sachwalter der Ordnung weiter das Gespenst der Revolte. »Die Situation erinnert mich an 1968«, unkte ein hohes Tier des europäischen Staatenkonglomerats, als die Griechen neulich dem Spardiktat mehrheitlich ein Oxi entgegenhielten. »Es gibt in Europa eine weitverbreitete Unzufriedenheit mit den bestehenden Verhältnissen, die schnell in eine revolutionäre Stimmung umschlagen kann. Es wird die Illusion erweckt, es gebe eine Alternative zu unserem Wirtschaftssystem, ohne Sparpolitik und Einschränkungen. Das ist die größte Gefahr, die von Griechenland ausgeht.«1

Der Befund stimmt nur zur Hälfte und darin liegt das Problem. An der weitverbreiteten Unzufriedenheit besteht kein Zweifel, zumindest für Griechenland kommt das Wort sogar einer gewaltigen Beschönigung gleich, schließlich hat dort in den letzten Jahren angesichts massenhaften Elends schiere Verzweiflung um sich gegriffen. Dass bereits die bescheidene Hoffnung, wenigstens nicht noch weiter zu verarmen, in der politischen Klasse die Alarmglocken schrillen lässt, sagt einiges. Eine Alternative zum existierenden Wirtschaftssystem aber hat anders als 1968 niemand aufgeworfen, die Protestierenden von 2011 so wenig wie die Athener Linksregierung von 2015. Beide eint vielmehr der Glaube, die drastischen Einschnitte ließen sich prinzipiell innerhalb der jetzigen Ordnung vermeiden, und ein Absehen von weiteren Kürzungen bei Renten, Löhnen, Staatsjobs wäre für diese Ordnung – Stichwort Massenkaufkraft – sogar von Vorteil. Insofern ist Syriza tatsächlich die Fortsetzung der Proteste mit anderen Mitteln; eine Fortsetzung ihrer Illusionen, mit Mitteln, die all das abschneiden, was an ihnen trotz dieser Illusionen vorwärtsweisend war: Selbstorganisation, Missachtung der Gesetze, direkte Aneignung, Konfrontation mit der Staatsmacht.

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Trapped at a Party Where No One Likes You


By surplus club, frankfurt

When considering unemployment, social exclusion or precarity, it is inadequate to simply take refuge within the empirical question of which groups live under these conditions. Contemporary sociological identities are themselves forms of appearance, moments of the totality of the reproduction of the capital-labor relation and therewith in the devaluation of the labor-power commodity presently unfolding through the category of the surplus proletariat.


At the outset of 2015, anyone hoping for a recovery of labor markets is told to lower their expectations.[1] Specious apologetics on the resilient turnaround of unemployment rates and job creation stumble against continuously revised growth forecasts reflecting the inertia of both high-GDP and emerging market economies. On a global level, the period since the crisis of 2007-08 has witnessed, at best, tepid economic activity despite unprecedented monetary stimulus and liquidity injection. Business investment remains predominantly stagnant, most recently with energy producers dramatically cutting back total capital investment.[2] Even China is stuttering and decreasing its appetite for raw materials[3], while the professed German success story cannot be read without the unfolding process of precarious capital concentration of a rapidly declining Eurozone, rather than as an indicator for lasting growth.[4] At the same time, the world economy continues its recourse in unrestrained leveraging[5], further exacerbating credit-to-GDP ratios, with, according to a recent report by the International Centre for Monetary and Banking Studies, total public and private debt reaching 272% of developed-world GDP in 2013.[6] The recent alarm of deflation means a rise in the real value of existing state, corporate, and household debt. Corresponding to the fiscal approach of higher budget deficits is, since 2010, the outright purchasing of government, corporate and real estate bonds by central banks and paid for with newly printed money – i.e. ‘quantitative easing’. The European Central Bank has, most recently, followed the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan in the latter policy despite the fact that it has yet to demonstrate itself as an effective response to decelerating economies. Instead, the money created enters into the banking system, shoring up balance sheets on finance capital and fomenting bubbles within assets held.

These conditions outline the phenomenal contours of the present crisis of capital accumulation, which is at the same time a crisis of the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. Since the economic restructuring of the 1970s, deregulation has expanded the flexibility of labor markets and fundamentally reoriented the conditions of the class relation. While unemployment remained relatively abated during the postwar period – alongside the assurances of the welfare state – developments in capital accumulation since then have witnessed an unprecedented ascendance, in terms of duration and concentration, of both unemployment and underemployment.[7] Since the early 1970s and through the dismantling of the Keynesian wage-productivity deal of the postwar period, the capitalist mode of production has been stumbling to combat the anguish of diminishing returns. Its recourse of economic restructuring consisted in the expansion of finance capital and increasing the rate of exploitation in an attempt to stabilize and defer its own inherent propensity to undermine the process of self-valorization. The 21st century thereby opened with a reign of labor-power devaluation that has only intensified its duress, which, alongside fiscal and sovereign debt crises expressed in austerity, continues to wield unrelenting immiseration.

Materially, the crisis of 2007-08 has only worsened the conditions of labor with, for example, the labor participation rate in the US now at a 36-year low[8], eclipsing any earnestly lauded low-wage job creation and its feeble average hourly earnings. For that segment of the proletariat not losing their jobs or dropping out of the labor force altogether – for which unemployment statistics have very little to say – the types of employment still available are largely temporary, part-time, seasonal, freelance, and in general, precariously informal without contractual guarantee of compensation. Thus, as the present moment finds an overcapacity of surplus capital unable to find lasting investment, the effective demand for labor-power follows suit and diminishes. Through the critique of political economy, this phenomena finds systematic expression in what Marx refers to as the “general law of capital accumulation”. Here, the proportional expansion of total capital, itself resulting from the productivity of labor and therewith in the production of surplus value, yields a mass of workers relatively redundant to the needs of the valorization process. This tendency arises simply from the nature of capital.[9] As capital develops labor as an appendage of its own productive capacity, it decreases the portion of necessary labor required for a given amount of surplus labor. Therefore, the relation of necessary labor needed by capital continuously declines. This occurs through the organic composition of capital in which competition between competing capitals induces the generalization of labor-saving technologies such as automation, thereby increasing constant capital at the expense of variable capital, resulting in a relative decline in the demand for labor.[10] The production of this relative surplus population is the devaluation of the total labor-power that takes on the form of a dislodgement of workers from the production process and in the difficulty of absorbing them through customary or legally regulated channels. If the labor-power of the proletariat cannot be realized, i.e. if it is not necessary for the realization of capital, then this labor capacity appears as external to the conditions of the reproduction of its existence. It turns into a crisis of the reproduction of the proletariat who is surrounded, on all sides, by needs without the means to adequately satisfy them.[11]

Friends have pointed out that surplus population is a necessary product of capital accumulation and therefore a structural category deriving from the ratio of necessary and surplus labor. It is a tendency that is always already there and inherently constitutive of the capital-labor relation independent from its historical configurations. So why might one justify its emphasis within the present conjuncture? After all, the notion of a surplus population “is already contained in the concept of the free labourer, that he is a pauper: virtual pauper.” (Grundrisse) The task therefore remains to demonstrate why the relative surplus population is paradigmatic of the class relation in the present moment and what are the implications for contemporary class struggle.

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