We seem to live in a new machine age, a world in which automation, artificial intelligence, algorithms, and the “robotization” of the economy are causing machines to gradually displace human laborers. Where will those millions of menial workers go after our economies have been thoroughly digitized, more completely embedded in what Benjamin Bratton (2015) terms “the Stack,” that is, a planetary-wide matrix of computing power? But just as we begin to think about this terrifying prospect, Marx is already there, waiting for us, as Foucault once said of Hegel, ready to puncture the notion of total capitalist mechanization. Marx is ready to stop us in our tracks, when he writes in Capital concerning the limits to how machines replace human labor. In some particularly advanced industrialized countries, Marx writes, machines are adopted on a sufficiently large scale that they end up “creat[ing] such a superfluity of labour” that wages end up depreciating by the traditional laws of supply and demand. But when machines replace human hands and minds, wages are lowered to such an extent that it no longer becomes profitable for capitalists to replace human labor with machines; it would be more inexpensive to pay for wage-labor than to invest in automation (Marx 1976: 516). Thus, by their very actions—introducing machinery that cheapens labor below the price of those very machines—capitalists tend to generate social circumstances that undermine those selfsame actions: Machines undermine the adoption of machines by way of a social mechanism – the wage. In fact, this might be the central methodological thrust of Marx’s Capital: All things turn into their own opposite.
In Marx’s account, the consequences of this relationship between machine power and human labor are viscerally jarring. Even where machines could reasonably be used to replace raw labor-power, including in unpleasant menial work, the abundance and resultant cheapness of labor prevents the adoption of even relatively simple technology. “Before the Iabour of women and children under 10 years old was forbidden in mines,” Marx (1976: 516) writes, “the capitalists considered the employment of naked women and girls, often in company with men, so far sanctioned by their moral code…that it was only after the passing of the [Factory] Act that they had recourse to machinery.” Marx remarks scathingly that machines for breaking stones had been invented in the United States but had not been employed in England “because the ‘wretch’ who does this work gets paid for such a small portion of his labour that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist” (Marx 1976: 517). In some places, instead of horses, women are employed “hauling barges,” because the capitalist can accurately calculate the costs of employing horses and machines, while the cost of keeping “the women of the surplus population is beneath all calculation” (Marx 1976: 517). In other words, cheap and docile human laborers are preferred to machines, at least in so far as they remain docile and (consequently) cheaper than machines.
The fact that these conditions no longer typically obtain in the Western world does not mean that capitalism has somehow transcended this mechanism. Rather, it suggests the enormously important role of spatial dislocation and what later Marxists termed “uneven development.” The naked, hysterical “wretches” of the Global North no longer toil in physically grueling, gruesome circumstances—they are more likely to be warehoused in a psychiatric ward or jailhouse, or work in a call center at the bottom of the “service” sector—but that is largely because capitalism has transported these forms of production elsewhere. The Norwegian writer Kjartan Fløgstad has pointed out that the industrial working class is still very much with us, contra those who have proclaimed a postindustrial age; only they are not here, they are there, out of sight of Western eyes—but one wonders if this does not “misunderestimate” the real presence of working bodies even in the capitalist core. Is not the deadening monotony of an Amazon warehouse worker, such as the English journalist James Bloodworth has studied, proof that we are still caught up in a world of proletarian labor, even in the seemingly sanitized North? Behind every smart algorithm stands a sweating, laboring body. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
This incisive analysis of the relationship between machines, wages, and human labor is typical of Marx’s method in Capital. It combines structural insights with a clear moral argument. Marx’s prophetic rage and his anger at deplorable working conditions are fueled by a moral vision about the nature of (in)justice. It is part of the general insanity of capitalism, Marx suggests, that it would prefer to work human beings to indignity, exhaustion, near-death, or even to the very end of life’s tether, rather than employ the ingenious fruits of the human mind—various labor-saving technologies—because of structural conditions that obtain under the capitalist process of production. To make this argument, of course, requires that Marx mobilizes a series of implicit moral axioms, such as the valuation of human life for its own sake and the ethical obligation to uphold human dignity. Far from being the cold, calculating menace that his detractors have sometimes made him out to be, Marx is a deeply ethical writer.
Nowhere is this more clearly on display, arguably, than in the sections of Capital that deal directly with what Marx terms surplus populations:
[I]t is capitalist accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital's average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population. (Marx 1976: 782)
Surplus populations are those groups in society that are not necessary to capital as it seeks to multiply itself. The figure of the surplus population hovers over nearly all of Capital, but it is in the latter stages of the first volume, in chapter twenty-five, that Marx fleshes out the term more comprehensively. But as some Marxist observers have noted, the notion of surplus populations in some ways lies much deeper in the conceptual underpinnings of Capital. Indeed, as Benanav and Clegg (2014) point out, surplus populations penetrate to the very core of Marx’s understanding of what it means to be a proletarian, this most crucial figure in Marxist political theory.
Typically, the figure of the proletarian has been understood as a person who must sell their wage-labor in order to survive: an individual who can find ways of earning a living other than through wage-labor is no longer, sensu stricto, a proletarian, so the story goes. This is the hard lesson learned by the unfortunate English capitalist described by Marx in the closing chapters of Capital, Mr. Peel, who who travels to the Swan River district of Australia with his capital (with “means of subsistence and production to the amount of £50,000” [Marx 1976: 932-933]) as well as three thousand workers (“working class men, women, and children”), only to discover upon arrival that most of his workers are able to survive off the abundance of the land they found readily on hand. Simply put, Mr. Peel’s workers discover that they no longer need him, thereby exploding their membership in the very category of the proletarian: “Unhappy Mr Peel, who provided for everything except the export of English relations of production to Swan River!” writes Marx (1976: 933). Why labor in exchange for wages to sustain life if life can be sustained through independent work on bountiful land? The men, women, and children of Marx’s story were proletarians by dint of sheer necessity; now that the conditions of necessity no longer obtain, they cease to be proletarians. But notice how this also causes Mr. Peel to cease to be a capitalist: without wage-laboring proletarians, no capitalist. The force of existential insecurity as the condition sine qua non for membership in the category of the proletarian also sustains the capitalist; once this existential insecurity is removed, the whole house of cards that is “English relations of production,” as Marx terms nineteenth-century Mancunian industrial capitalism, comes tumbling down.
To be a proletarian would seem to mean being beholden to the needs of the capitalist. A proletarian is one who is unfree, fettered to the imperative of selling labor-power in exchange for the only means of subsistence available, namely wages.But a close reading of Marx’s definition reveals that this understanding of the term is not entirely accurate. Interestingly, already at the level of definition, the proletarian figure is in some sense “always already” superfluous to the needs of capital. This is what makes Capital such an astonishing work: It’s dialectic all the way down, so to speak. Peel back the onion layers of the dense writing, and where one might expect to find a beating, pulsating heart, instead one finds contradiction, and yet more contradiction. There is no core; there is only a kind of undecided quantum state of negation heaped upon negation. Thus Marx (1976: 764n1) writes:
‘Proletarian’ must be understood to mean, economically speaking, nothing other than ‘wage-labourer’, the man who produces and valorizes ‘capital’, and is thrown onto the street as soon as he becomes superfluous to the need for valorization possessed by ‘Monsieur Capital’, as Pecquer calls this person.
Because superfluity of labor is built into the very rhythms of capitalist accumulation, it follows that the proletarian is not just someone who is potentially “thrown onto the street as soon as he becomes superfluous,” but someone who is actually subjected to this treatment. If we accept the premise that superfluity is an integral part of the mechanism of capital accumulation, the figure of the proletarian, on the one hand, and the mass of surplus populations, on the other, are really interchangeable terms. The proletarian is a surplus population only waiting to be actualized. “The working population therefore produces both the accumulation of capital and the means by which it is itself made relatively superfluous,” writes Marx (1976: 783), “and it does this to an extent which is always increasing.” The proletarian who works diligently at their assembly line is not merely producing another commodity, and not just value, but also their very non-being—their nihilation. Strangely, this means that superfluity, which would seem to be an excess to a necessary kernel or core, is in fact brought back into the very core and integrated into it. This surely violates our common-sense notion of what an excess even constitutes: to be an excess is precisely to be outside an interiority. But here we are dealing with a very strange sort of excess, one that is integral to the whole: It is both beyond and within. The proletarian, then, is the schizoid subject par excellence, the one who produces all of value, and therefore carries the entire social pyramid upon their shoulders—for where would the whole world of glittering commodities be without the toil of the proletarian?—but simultaneously produces the condition of their own undoing. The proletarian makes commodities and unmakes their categorial belonging. The proletarian produces goods for exchange and use, but also produces their own non-being. This is what Marx means by the industrial reserve army. But it is a reserve that is itself integral to the army and so stands in a strangely paradoxical, tense relationship with the social whole. To understand surplus populations, it is crucial to recognize that as soon as we take up wage-labor, which means as soon as we begin to receive wages, we are also enlisting in the ranks of an industrial reserve army. We are all reservists in the wars of capital.
Benanay, A. and Clegg, J. (2014) Misery and debt. In: Contemporary Marxist Theory: An Anthology. London: Bloomsbury.
Bratton, B. (2015) The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Marx, K. (1976) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume One). London: Penguin.