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Marxist anthropology in a world of surplus population: Reflections on a Frontlines of Value workshop

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. (Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe; Wikimedia Commons)

Note from LeftEast editors: this is a reprint article which was originally published on January 26 2022 at FocaalBlog. The article is linked to a research workshop “Rethinking Surplus Populations: Theory From the Peripheries” that was held at Bergen University in December. 13-14 December 2021, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, Frontlines of Value Research Program

I was recently privileged to participate in a workshop about the Marxian concept of the “surplus population,” convoked by Stephen Campbell, Thomas Cowan, and Don Kalb as part of the Frontlines of Value research group at the University of Bergen. The workshop, featuring participants of different generations, academic fields and geographic specializations, was educating and revealing in a number of ways (see below for the full programme). In what follows, I will not try to do justice to the presentations or the engaging debates, but to pick out a few themes which seem to me to be of abiding importance for anthropology and related disciplines, and to make some tentative suggestions of my own.

As many have remarked, the Marxism now resurgent in certain sections of the academy, including European social anthropology (Neveling and Steur 2018), seems much more preoccupied than preceding generations of the tradition with questions surrounding the relations between this mode of production and its “outside” – whether conceived of in temporal terms, as pre-capitalist (or, much more rarely, post-capitalist); in spatial terms, as subsisting in regions outside the control of global capital; or in more complex theoretical terms. The concept of “primitive accumulation,” used by Marx himself to describe the events leading up to the flowering of capitalism in England, has been applied and even stretched (Glassman 2006), up to a point which some consider excessive. Accumulation by unequal exchange, backed up by the threat of force, certainly exists in our late-late capitalist society; but what do we gain, ask theorists like Henry Bernstein, by calling that accumulation “primitive”? (Agrarian Questions JAC 2019)

Additional questions regarding the relations between capitalism’s putative “inside” and “outside” are raised by the concept of the surplus population, which stood at the center of the workshop. As with other of Marx’s terminological choices, there is an easily missed irony at play here: proletarian populations can only be “surplus” from the point of view of capital itself, insofar as it does not find it profitable to exploit them as laborers. Furthermore, people deprived of access to their own means of production but denied the opportunity to participate in production by selling their labor-power to others are not necessarily superfluous to capital’s needs in every sense: they may be useful as consumers, as soldiers and guards, or indeed as a “reserve army” of strikebreaking laborers. They are only “surplus” in the specific sense that the ability of capital to absorb labor-power is limited on the one hand by aggregate effective demand – which grows sluggishly, due to the lopsided distribution of the fruits of capitalist development – and on the other by the productivity of labor, which grows swiftly as a result of capitalist competition. This is Marx’s “general law of capitalist accumulation”: the number of laborers required by the demands of profit-making enterprise, as a portion of the total proletarian population, will tend to fall (Marx 1990, chap. 25).

Anthropologists, who have always been curious about the lives of people outside Europe and outside wage-labor, have good reason to be interested in the concept of the surplus population. However, as the contributors to the workshop highlighted, operationalizing this concept for the analysis of particular ethnographic cases throws up real problems. The most obvious of these is that most people who lack access to “proper jobs” (Ferguson and Li 2018) do, after all, work. Some of them retain some access to land and other means of production, and engage in “petty commodity production”; others labor in the ill-defined “informal sector,” for example as petty merchants; still others do sell their labor-power, but not under conditions considered viable or legal by national and international institutions (Campbell 2020; Cowan 2019). All these people purchase at least some of their means of subsistence on the market, and are thus tied into capitalism as consumers, if nothing else. To be truly outside of capital, as one participant at the workshop remarked, one would need to be “undiscovered,” a member of one of those mythical, self-sufficient tribes of whose non-existence anthropologists are well aware. Hence, surplus populations are at best “inside-outside,” taking on a painfully ambiguous role.

The “functionality” of surplus populations is a related issue. Is the emergence of such populations a side-effect of the rise in the productivity of labor, primarily caused by capitalists’ desire to gain short-term “super-profits” by producing more efficiently than their competitors, or is it actively encouraged by these capitalists and their agents, such as the state? My own contribution to the workshop came down on the “functional” (if not functionalist) side of the debate. Setting aside the ample empirical evidence which could be used to make the case, I argued on purely theoretical grounds that exclusion from the labor market should not be understood as diametrically opposed to exploitation within it. It is easy enough to understand why lack of choice should force those at greater threat of exclusion to accede to greater exploitation, thus exposing the same individuals to the cruelest brunt of both processes.

There are, however, some important objections to this account. By all estimates, the surplus population is far vaster than capital could ever be expected to absorb into standard employment – perhaps around three quarters of the world’s total population (see Neilson and Stubbs 2011). Thus, most “surplus” workers have no hope of ever entering the army of labor, even as “reservists” or scabs, and any question of how they might behave given such a chance is moot. But the ethnographic evidence, which shows that many such people do in fact work and consume in quite recognizably capitalistic ways, casts doubt over such a formulation. Perhaps the calculations of scholars like Neilson and Stubbs are over-hasty? If surplus populations are only surplus from the point of view of capital, perhaps this perspective is less singular and unambiguous than the assumptions of such quantitative exercises require?


I would like to suggest one way of getting at the problem, through a category that remains under-theorized despite its crucial role in Marx’s labor theory of value: the value of labor-power. One of Marx’s greatest theoretical discoveries was the distinction between the value of labor-power and the value which labor can produce: in other words, the difference between what human beings need in order to live and work, and what they are capable of producing with their life and their work. It is only with the total commodification of life (and work) under capitalism that these two quantities become commensurable, as both the needs and the capacities of the worker can now be measured with one yardstick: money. At the same time, capitalism disguises the difference between the two quantities by insisting that after the costs of living and working are deducted and transferred to the worker as her wage, the remnant is not the product of her labor but a special sum called “profit,” which the employer is legally and morally entitled to appropriate.

But the value of labor-power is underdetermined. Even ignoring changes in productivity – we shall get to these in a moment – the needs of a worker, of the working family, and of the proletariat as a whole, are eminently contestable. Indeed, everyday class struggle consists to a great degree in disputations over the value of labor-power in the broad sense, which includes the wage itself as well as the length of the working day, “social wages” like health insurance and pensions, and so on. But despite this underdetermination, the value of labor-power can only fluctuate between two limits: at the top is the point where the wage begins to eat into profits to an extent unacceptable to employers, and at the bottom is the minimum of biological reproduction, below which the workers would begin to die off.

But even given a particular level of needs, the value of labor-power will shift with changes in the productivity of the types of labor which produce the essentials of life, however these are defined. The most obvious of these necessities, and the one which preoccupies Marx above all, is food. If the amount of labor necessary to produce the standard food basket goes down, for example through the introduction of agricultural technologies such as those of the Green Revolution, then so does the value of labor-power (Moore 2010). But many other technologies also play a role: for example, the great advances in hygienic and epidemiological science of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also lowered the value of labor-power by drastically reducing infant mortality and raising life expectancy. Here then is one of those paradoxical ironies of capitalism: the more we invest in improving the quality of life, the cheaper human life becomes, in a very literal sense.

The relation between the value of labor-power and surplus populations now becomes clear. Marx insists that there is no general “law of population” in capitalist societies, and specifically rejects (against Malthus) any tendency to exponential increase in population (Foster 2000). If anything, long-term trends appear to demonstrate that human populations adjust their birthrates to prevailing deathrates, such that population tends to increase quite slowly. The boom in world population over the last century, as Aaron Benanav (2019) shows, can be interpreted as following from an easily understandable lag between the introduction of the hygienic and medical reforms which lowered deathrates and the subsequent adjustment of birthrates. Thus, experts expect world population to stabilize by the end of the current century (United Nations 2015), while the environmental preconditions of cheap labor-power may be under threat from climate change and related environmental crises (Moore 2015), potentially triggering a secular rise in the price of food. Nevertheless, the minimum value of labor-power – the amount of work required to produce the basket of goods absolutely necessary to keep the proletariat capable of working and reproducing, per capita – has decreased drastically since the publication of Capital. Of course, the global working class is not satisfied with this level of bare subsistence: even in poor countries, workers demand additional goods, like electronics and education. But this only points to the growing extent to which the value of their commodity is not reducible to physical constraints, but determined by the outcome of political processes. So long as the supply of labor-power tends to outstrip demand – that is, for the next few decades at least – the pressure of competition over jobs will tend to push the value of labor-power toward the minimum. Only proletarian resistance can counter this trend.

But the agency of proletarians cannot be reduced to the extent to which capital needs them as laborers. Even the most outcast of populations have means of putting pressure on capital, and maintenance of global hegemony requires that their demands be dealt with in one way or another. One way is, of course, violence: when people are not needed as workers, the global power structure is happy to countenance their warehousing, and if need be, their mass death (Mbembe 2003). But since the necessities of life have become so cheap, maintaining them in a sort of social death while providing them with the means of bare existence through humanitarian aid or debt is also an option (Sanyal 2014). With regard to these populations, global capital has become something like the Calvinist God, capable of arbitrarily granting or denying their every wish yet devoid of any need for their labors and supplications.

Regardless of how precisely we parse the concept of the surplus population, its continuing and even growing relevance shows that the analytic categories of Marx’s Capital are as relevant to our world as they were to those of the 19th century. The workings of the “general law of capitalist accumulation” have produced a world in which even the possibility of being exploited has become a coveted privilege denied to billions. This certainly necessitates a rethinking of political strategy, one to which anthropology is particularly suited to contribute. However, the final goal of that strategy – a world in which each contributes according to her abilities and receives according to her needs – remains the same.


Agrarian Questions JAC. 2019. An Interview with Henry Bernstein. (4/8) Primitive Accumulation.

Benanav, Aaron. 2019. “Demography and Dispossession: Explaining the Growth of the Global Informal Workforce, 1950-2000.” Social Science History 43 (4): 679–703.

Campbell, Stephen. 2020. “Debt collection as labour discipline: the work of finance in a Myanmar squatter settlement.” Social Anthropology 28 (3): 729–742.

Cowan, Thomas. 2021. “The Village as Urban Infrastructure: Social Reproduction, Agrarian Repair and Uneven Urbanisation.” Environment and Planning E 4 (3): pp. 736–755.

Ferguson, James, and Tania Li. 2018. “Beyond the ‘Proper Job:’ Political-Economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man.” Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Glassman, Jim. 2006. “Primitive Accumulation, Accumulation by Dispossession, Accumulation by ‘Extra-Economic’ Means.” Progress in Human Geography 30 (5): 608–25.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I). Translated by Ben Fowkes. Middlesex: Penguin.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.

Moore, Jason W. 2010. “The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450–2010.” Journal of Agrarian Change 10 (3): 389–413.

———. 2015. “Cheap Food and Bad Climate: From Surplus Value to Negative Value in the Capitalist World-Ecology.” Critical Historical Studies 2 (1): 1–43.

Neilson, David, and Thomas Stubbs. 2011. “Relative Surplus Population and Uneven Development in the Neoliberal Era: Theory and Empirical Application.” Capital & Class 35 (3): 435–53.

Neveling, Patrick, and Luisa Steur. 2018. “Introduction: Marxian Anthropology Resurgent.” Focaal 2018 (82): 1–15.

Sanyal, Kalyan. 2014. Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality & Post-Colonial Capitalism. 1. paperback ed. London: Routledge.

United Nations, ed. 2015. World Population Prospects. ST/ESA/SER.A 377. New York: United Nations.

Matan Kaminer is an anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His article “Saving the Arabah: Thai migrant workers and the asymmetries of community in an Israeli agricultural settlement” is forthcoming in American Ethnologist. He is a member of Academia for Equality and LeftEast, among other political initiatives.