Surplus Population Research Paper

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For classical political economists, the poverty and unemployment generated in the early stages of capitalist development denoted the existence of a surplus population caused by the inability of the poor to postpone marriage and behave in a rational and virtuous manner.


The most influential exponent of this view was T. R. Malthus (1766-1834), author of the “population principle,” or “the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it” (Malthus [1798] 1933, p. 5)—widely invoked to legitimate poverty and inequality on the grounds of “natural laws.” According to Malthus, the principle’s “natural and necessary effects [are] … a very considerable portion of that vice and misery, and of that unequal distribution of the bounties of nature which it has been the unceasing object of the enlightened philanthropists in all ages to correct” (p. 5). Malthus based his principle of population on a “natural law,” the tendency of all forms of life, including human life, to increase beyond the available means of subsistence: When unchecked, he argued, population increases geometrically, doubling every twenty-five years, whereas food can increase only arithmetically (p. 8). That technological change and growth in the productivity of labor in agriculture and other areas of economic activity have proven Malthus wrong have not undermined, however, the continuing ideological value of his principle as a tool for legitimating poverty, inequality, underdevelopment, war, and human misery in all its forms. For example, Robert Kaplan (1994), writing about the conditions in West Africa in the mid-1990s—which, in his view, portended a twenty-first century engulfed in anarchy, disease, and overpopulation—states: “It is Thomas Malthus, the philosopher of demographic doomsday, who is now the prophet of West Africa’s future. And West Africa’s future, eventually, will be that of most of the world” (p. 48).


Marx’s alternative to Malthus’s principle of population is the principle of the reserve army or relative surplus population, which captures the effects of changing patterns of capital accumulation upon the working population. Theoretically, the process of capital accumulation entails increases in the demand for labor, which, in turn, lead to increases in the value of labor power; that is, as the supply of labor declines, capitalists are compelled to offer higher wages to entice workers to their enterprises. The effect of higher wages is a reduction in profits. In practice, wages tend to rise together with capital accumulation, but they never rise enough to endanger the system itself. For the classical political economists and for Malthus, in particular, the mechanism that kept wages equal to their “natural” price (that is, equal to the minimum level of subsistence) is embodied in the principle of population. When wages rise, workers overre-produce themselves, and this increase in the size of the population produces a supply of labor greater than the demand, so wages fall to their “natural” price, that is, to a minimum level of subsistence. Under these conditions, workers could improve their situation only by controlling their numbers, thereby raising the price of labor. Poverty and unemployment are, therefore, the result only of workers “natural propensity” to reproduce beyond the available means of subsistence.

Against Malthus, Marx observes that capital accumulation does not automatically entail increases in the demand for labor because as the forces of production develop, the organic composition of capital changes. From the perspective of its value composition, capital is composed of constant capital (the value of the means of production) and variable capital (the value of labor power). From the perspective of its technical composition, capital is composed of the means of production and living labor. Changes in the technical composition produce changes in the value composition, and this correlation between the two is the organic composition of capital (Marx [1867] 1967, p. 612). In the process of capital accumulation, the organic composition of the total social capital changes; the constant increases at the expense of the variable component, and “since the demand for labor 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 total capital… It falls relatively to the magnitude of the total social capital and at an accelerated rate” (p. 629). The logic of capital accumulation inexorably produces unemployment, the constant presence of a “relative surplus population” or “reserve army of labor” whose size and composition will vary with the specific needs of capital accumulation in a given social formation. It follows that the relationship between the level of employment and the size of the population is not determined by the latter but by the organic composition of capital invested at a given time: “the more or less favorable circumstances in which the wage-working class supports and multiplies itself, in no way alter the fundamental character of capitalist production” (p. 615). Capital accumulation, therefore, is indifferent to and independent from rates of population growth (pp. 640-641).

Surplus Population In The Twentieth And Twenty-First Centuries

In the two centuries after the publication of Malthus’s work, the capitalist mode of production has penetrated even more deeply in all social formations. World capitalist accumulation has internationalized the reserve army of labor. Within advanced capitalist social formations, such as that of the United States, changes in the organic composition of capital resulted in automation, downsizing, outsourcing, deindustrialization, decline in the demand for skilled blue-collar labor, growth in the service and information-technology sectors of the economy, and increases in the demand for technical, professional, and managerial labor. As it could not be otherwise, such qualitative shifts in capital investment necessarily contributed to the existence and reproduction, through time, of a surplus population of fluctuating size and composition.

Changes in the organic composition of capital, however, are not the only cause of surplus populations. Welfare-state policies, the product of successful class struggles (especially in western Europe) and of the capitalist classes’ effort (especially in the United States) to avert social unrest and even revolution in the aftermath of the Great Depression, had unintended demographic consequences. By providing social services and minimal income payments to the unemployed, disabled, and poor, such policies contributed to the growth, through natural increase, of a large and relatively stable population of poor and near-poor people, unemployed and largely unemployable. Therefore, the surplus population in advanced capitalist societies is heterogeneous, including the recent and the long-term unemployed and a varying proportion of people who have never been employed and are likely to be unemployable. Illiteracy, lack of skills, age, responsibility for the care of small children or elderly relatives, criminal records, drug addictions, disability, mental illness, and so forth are some of the reasons millions of people have never or seldom entered the labor force. Also part of the surplus population are the homeless, prostitutes, and those who make a living through illegal activities, the “lumpenproletariat.” Finally, as the effects of globalization are felt more strongly among the more vulnerable sectors of the working classes, Latino immigrants—particularly the undocumented—have become the more visible and stigmatized sector of the surplus population. Even if most of them work in poorly paid manual jobs that most U.S. citizens refrain from doing, they are contradictorily perceived both as dangerous, unhealthy, idle, a burden for the taxpayers, and, at the same time, the cause of declining wages for low-skilled workers.

In racially heterogeneous societies such as the United States, blacks and other “nonwhite” populations have been deemed superfluous by the white elites or managerial classes, a view reflecting the resilience and pervasiveness of racism across all social classes and the disproportionate presence of racial and ethnic minorities in the poverty population. And, given the economic and political interests of U.S. and European capitalist classes in the so-called developing world, their populations also were deemed superfluous, a drain on the world’s resources, the main cause of “underdevelopment,” political unrest, and revolutionary, anticapitalist and anticolo-nial struggles. Consequently, national and international strategies were devised to control the size of these surplus populations (Demerath 1976; Mass 1976; Gimenez 1977; Michaelson 1981; Bandarage 1997).

Within the United States, in the early twentieth century scientists lent support to eugenic theories of racial differences in intelligence and promoted immigration and sterilization policies designed to keep “inferior” (that is, non-“Nordic”) races from entering the country and to discourage the “unfit” (that is, the poor, Native Americans, blacks, Puerto Ricans, criminals, the mentally ill, alcoholics) from reproducing (DeFine 1997). While such government-sponsored policies are no longer in place, the practice of government-funded sterilization, made easily available to poor and nonwhite women, continues unabated; it has become the most widespread form of birth control among women older than twenty-five in the United States (Petchesky 1976) and, for all practical purposes, can be viewed as an effect of a “doctrine of preemptive extermination” aimed at the surplus population.Presumably, sterilization is done with the women’s consent, but consent cannot be taken for granted when women are not fully informed of alternatives or when the alternatives—efficient use of contraceptives or abortion—are placed beyond their reach. Furthermore, the women who “choose” sterilization tend to be poor, Puerto Ricans, Latinas, African Americans, and Native Americans (Petchesky 1976; DeFine, 1997). The high incidence of sterilization constitutes a form of abuse and a strategy to control the growth of populations deemed superfluous because it is a form of birth control that, conservative rhetoric about the value of life notwithstanding, is made easily available and paid by federal and state funds. Abortion, on the other hand, though legal, is unavailable for most poor women, for the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, “excludes abortion from the comprehensive health care services provided to low-income people by the federal government through Medicaid … Currently, only seventeen states fund abortions for low income women” (ACLU 2004).

Besides sterilization, poor women, especially women on welfare, are encouraged to use long-term forms of contraception, such as Depo-Provera, Norplant, or quinacrine (Chamberlain and Hardisty 2006) with problematic side-effects. These practices, supported by the political right, have affected the consciousness of people of color, women and men, who become suspicious of family planning programs and even perceive legalized abortion as part of a genocidal strategy against people of color. The political right exploits this perception, claiming to be “allies of these communities … pointing to ‘shared values’ on abortion and other social issues” (Chamberlain and Hardisty 2006).

Wishful thinking about the role of abortion in cutting down the size of the surplus population is epitomized in the notion that the legalization of abortion caused a decline in the crime rate: “In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years—the years during which young men enter their criminal prime—the rate of crime began to fall. What this cohort was missing … were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals.. Legalized abortion led to less unwontedness; unwonted-ness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime” (Levitt and Dubner 2005, p. 139). They assumed that, as safe abortions had been available to middle-class women before legalization, the women most likely to have had abortions after Roe v. Wade would be poor, in their teens, unmarried, or all three (p. 138) because now “any woman could easily obtain an abortion, often for less than $100” (p. 138). Their findings have been criticized and shown to be misleading because of statistical flaws; they ignored changes in the crime rate that would have undermined their arguments, and by focusing on the crime rates of 1985 and 1997 only, they ignored “the 800-pound gorilla of crime trends: the rise and fall of the crack epidemic during the intervening years . which first drove violent crime up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, then drove it down in the mid and late ’90s” (Sailer 1999). They should have been criticized also because they ignored the effects of the Hyde Amendment, which, after 1976, kept poor women—presumably those likely to give birth to potential criminals—in most states from having access to abortions. Regardless of the flaws in their research, their argument is ideologically powerful, strengthening racial stereotypes among whites and suspicion about abortion among nonwhites. What gets lost in the midst of these arguments is the need of all women, regardless of class, race, or ethnicity, to attain some control over their bodies. Women’s reproductive rights, their right to make free and informed decisions about child-bearing, are endangered by the contradictions and ideological effects inherent in political discourses and practices that celebrate motherhood and urge white, middle-class women to reproduce and reject abortion while making abortion unavailable and pushing sterilization as the birth control of “choice” for poor, especially nonwhite, women.

Besides population control, prisons (many of them turned into workplaces) and the army are the other two strategies the dominant classes use to deal with the surplus population. The Malthusian spirit, captured in Scrooge’s reply to someone requesting a donation for the poor at Christmastime, is still alive: When told that many of the poor and destitute would rather die than go to the work house or prison, Scrooge said: “If they would rather die, . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” (Dickens [1843] 1876, p. 12).


  1. 2004. Public Funding for Abortion.
  2. Bandarage, Asoka. 1997. Women, Population, and Global Crisis: A Political-Economic Analysis. London: Zed Books.
  3. Chamberlain, Pam, and Jean Hardisty. 2006. Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege. The Public Eye Magazine 14 (1).
  5. Darity, William, Jr. 1983. The Managerial Class and Surplus Population. Society 21 (1): 54–62.
  6. DeFine, Michael Sullivan. 1997. A History of Governmentally Coerced Sterilization: The Plight of the Native American Woman.
  8. Demerath, Nicholas J. 1976. Birth Control and Foreign Policy: The Alternatives to Family Planning. New York: Harper & Row.
  9. Dickens, Charles. [1843] 1876. Christmas Stories. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers.
  10. Gimenez, Martha E. 1977. Population and Capitalism. Latin American Perspectives 4 (4) (Fall): 5–40.
  11. Kaplan, Robert D. 1994. The Coming Anarchy. Atlantic Monthly 273 (2): 44–76.
  12. Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow.
  13. Malthus, T. R. 1798. On the Principle of Population, vol. 1. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1933.
  14. Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, The Process of Capitalist Production. New York: International Publishers, 1967.
  15. Mass, Bonne. 1976. Population Target: The Political Economy of Population Control in Latin America. Brampton, Ontario, Canada: Charters Publishing.
  16. Michaelson, Karen, ed. 1981. And The Poor Get Children: Radical Perspectives on Population Dynamics. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  17. Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack. 1976. “Reproductive Choice” in the Contemporary United States: A Social Analysis of Female Sterilization. In And The Poor Get Children: Radical Perspectives on Population Dynamics, ed. Karen Michaelson, 50–88. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  18. Sailer, Steve. Does Abortion Prevent Crime? Slate, 1999.

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