Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in engagements with Marx’s concept of relative surplus populations (RSPs). The RSP describes the portion of the working-age population surplus to the immediate needs of capital for waged labour at any given place and time. Revived interest in this facet of Marx’s writing makes sense against the backdrop of intensifying precarity in recent decades. Since the 1970s, global capitalism has been marked by a centralisation of corporate power and concentration of wealth. Global production has been radically restructured over the last few decades, with capital relentlessly downloading costs and risks onto peripheral workers, while squeezing wages often below the costs of reproduction. All these dynamics have exacerbated and accelerated climate breakdown. The costs of the deepening climate crisis in terms of lives and livelihoods are disproportionately borne by already precarious workers and agrarian populations predominantly in the global South, amplifying other forms of displacement and dispossession.
In a recent special issue of Geoforum, we have tried to take stock of this revival, and chart some new directions for research drawing on the concept of RSPs. While previous research has brought about valuable empirical and analytical insights, we suggest that what is now needed is a more holistic, yet also variegated conceptualisation of the RSP.
Thinking beyond disconnection
We find somewhat unsatisfactory the metaphors of ‘disconnection’ that have predominated in existing discussions of RSPs. Tania Li’s germinal intervention argues that, contra teleological ‘transition’ narratives framing development as a process of movement ‘from agriculture to industry, country to city, and peasant to entrepreneurial farmer or wage worker’, dispossession has no necessary or immediate link to the need for RSPs as labour. Li and others have often implied that these ‘disconnections’ are now permanent in a way that Marx did not anticipate: ‘Put crudely, if some portion of the relative surplus population died tomorrow, the rate of profit would remain the same, and the GDP in the affected countries would increase’. The critical interrogation of oversimplified ‘transition’ narratives about development here is welcome and necessary, but we nonetheless think that posing the question in this way ultimately has important limits.
Firstly, a focus on what happens to ‘disconnected’ populations can too easily slide over into taking ‘disconnection’ for granted. Moreover, the ‘relevance’ to capitalist accumulation of any given population does not begin and end with formal wage labour. Irregular and unfree forms of labour exploitation are durable features of global capitalism. And, as long as basic survival needs remain commodified, those out of work, or not able to secure enough work, are still subject to what Marx calls ‘secondary’ or indirect exploitation through, for instance, debts and rents.
In this special issue, we flesh out the different ways that the fundamental tendency towards the formation of an RSP under capitalism plays out at different times and places, and how the ‘modes of existence’, in Marx’s terms, of concrete RSPs interact with wider circuits of capital accumulation. Marx’s insistence that the formation of a RSP is both a necessary product of the capitalist mode of accumulation and a vital lever for future capital accumulation is, we think, a fruitful place to start. From this point of departure, contributions to the special issue map out several important directions.
Geographies and Temporalities of RSPs
In Marx’s discussion, the RSP is an integral part of wider patterns of spatial and technological restructuring of capitalist production and accumulation. Crucially, this means moving beyond metaphors of disconnection to situate the production and reproduction of RSPs in the capitalist production of space in a more positive sense.
Several authors in the special issue point to the links between the production of surplus populations and the reconfiguration of urban (Lama Tawakkol writing on Cairo) and rural (Nick Bernards on Senegal; Marcus Taylor and Suhas Bhasme on Katarnaka in Southern India) space, as well as emergent geographies of extractivism (Rebecca Hall on Northern Canada). Equally, creating and maintaining surplus populations is often about generating particular kinds of mobilities between places where surplus labour is created and places where it can be valorised. Lucia Pradella and Rosanna Cillo’s contribution documents the emergence of a transnational architecture of detention facilities, transport, and recruitment links facilitating the movement of African workers, through Libya, into Italian agriculture. Vanessa Banta and Geraldine Pratt similarly highlight the complex links through which Filipino migrant workers are made internationally mobile, but also ‘surplused’ both at home and in Dubai.
RSPs between exploitation and reproduction
Exploitation under capitalism does not take place through wage labour alone. In Capital (Volume 1, Chp. 25), Marx highlights the ways that the housing of RSPs is continually re-constituted as a site of accumulation, noting that ‘the mines of misery are exploited by house speculators with more profit and at less cost than the mines of Potosi ever were’. Intersections between the ‘original’ (primary) and ‘secondary’ forms of exploitation would seem to be particularly important to explore in relation to RSPs. Angela Wigger emphasises how housing functions as a site both for the extraction of profits and the further subordination of surplus populations to capital, exploring how the constitution of housing as a site of accumulation operates through interlinked deepening forms of secondary exploitation and expulsions of RSPs from their places of survival (see Susanne Soederberg’s new book for a similar analysis of Berlin, Dublin and Vienna).
An expanded conception of exploitation also invites further reflection on modes of resistance. Understanding the links between RSPs and the deepening of secondary forms of exploitation invites reflections about how, for instance, debtors or renters acting collectively might exercise a form of structural power. Equally, the basis of secondary exploitation – that is, the commodification of social reproduction – is also a potential basis for resistance. Hall shows particularly clearly how the ‘mixed economy’ in Northern Canada has formed a basis for actual and potential resistance to exploitation through wage labour. People with access to means of survival through non-market channels are, simply put, harder to render ‘surplus’.
Individually and collectively, the contributions to our collection suggest that Marx’s category of RSP continues to be a powerful conceptual lens to make sense of our world. Since early 2020, we are witnessing yet another crisis of global capitalism. COVID-19 has intensified (and arguably emerged from) the contradictions of contemporary capitalism, while climate breakdown continues apace. Renewed engagements along the lines suggested here are especially urgent now.